The Oneida Indian Nation's Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y

Halbritter, Porter Skeptical on New York’s Expanded Gaming Amendment

Gale Courey Toensing
3/15/12

Leaders of the two largest Indian gaming casinos in New York state expressed doubts about the legislature’s passage of a state constitutional amendment to allow up to seven commercial casinos in the state.

“Today’s expected first passage of legislation to amend the state constitution to legalize commercial gaming does not change the fact that many questions remain unanswered about the overall benefit of such a proposal in New York,” Ray Halbritter, the Oneida Indian Nation representative, said in a statement on March 15, soon after the constitutional amendment was approved.

“We remain skeptical of this initial decision,” said Robert Odawi Porter, the president of the Seneca Nation of Indians. “We still have concerns for our $1 billion business, the people of our Nation, our 5,000 employees, our vendors and customers and protecting our $900 million investment in this region.”

The vote took place late in the night on March 14 and early the next morning during Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government. This year also marks the 45th anniversary of the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. The Assembly passed the casino measure at about 11 p.m. Wednesday and the Senate followed suit early the next day after Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver cut a deal with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the Buffalo News reported. The irony of the situation was not lost. An Associated Press report in the The Wall Street Journal described the late night-early morning events as “a flash of backroom dealing."

"Looks like classic Albany: Three men in a room, huge log roll, no transparency," said political science Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College. "So much for change coming to Albany as we sit here in the middle of the night, during Sunshine Week," said Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, on the Senate floor just before 11 p.m. Wednesday.

The legislature’s vote came just three months after Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed support for expanding commercial gaming. The amendment was pushed by the New York Gaming Association, a lobbying group representing the state’s nine racetracks, which want to convert from their existing video lottery terminals to full Las Vegas-style casinos. The constitutional amendment is not a done deal, however. The legislature must approve the amendment again next year followed by approval by voters at a November, 2013, referendum.

The Oneida Nation owns and operates Turning Stone Resort Casino and a number of other enterprises that employ 4,500 people and generate hundreds of millions of dollars into the local and state economy, which could be threatened by expanded commercial gaming. “There is a delicate balance between the potential economic benefit gained from gaming and oversaturation that will undermine the social and economic fabric of our communities,” Halbritter said. “Economic development for New York is a positive goal toward which all of its residents should work. That economic development should be targeted to locations that are in need of financial stimulus.”

The Nation has proved that responsible gaming can produce significant economic benefits for the state and local communities, Halbritter said, but it’s not known if commercial gaming could do the same to create new long-term jobs, generate sustained economic development, and ensure that revenues will be reinvested back into New York. Looking to the second legislative vote and statewide referendum, he urged voters to “hold their elected officials accountable by insuring that they do not allow commercial gaming that serves only to drain community resources and cannibalize the success that local economies have achieved under the existing framework.” Halbritter promised that the Nation will stay engaged in the process “to ensure that the interests of our community and the families of our 4,500 employees are protected.”

Porter said the state is honor-bound to uphold the exclusivity provision in the Nation’s 2002 gaming compact with the state, which guarantees the Nation exclusive gaming rights in a 13-county area in western New York. The two parties are currently in a dispute over the government allowed and promoting slot machines at privates businesses and three state-run racinos located within the Nation’s exclusivity zone.   “We . . . expect the state will do the right thing and honor the 2002 compact. As a matter of existing state law, we have 13 years remaining on the guarantee of our zone of gaming exclusivity,” Porter said. The Seneca president said the Nation will continue to work with legislators and the governor’s staff to ensure that current law is honored and respected.

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