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Albany, N.Y. - Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that New York's Indian casinos could face competition in their backyards if talks with tribes over his gambling expansion proposal fail to yield results soon.
Cuomo's harder public stance with the tribes comes as he tries to shepherd his proposal to bring three Las Vegas casinos to upstate New York at yet-to-be-identified locations. Lawmakers are considering legislation, and a public referendum to change New York's constitution to allow non-Indian casinos could be on the ballot as early as November.
Three of the six upstate regions Cuomo is looking at already have Indian casinos. The governor said he would not allow a new casino to operate in a region where there is already a casino run by a tribe in good standing with the state. But that could change for tribes that fail to resolve issues with the state in current rounds of talks.
"The Senecas have a decision to make, the Oneidas have a decision to make, the Mohawks have a decision to make," Cuomo told reporters at a Capitol news conference. "It's the same decision factors today that there are going to be in nine months. For the legislation to work, we need certainty and we need closure."
The Seneca Nation of Indians and the St. Regis Mohawks have for years been withholding casino payments to the state, claiming that New York violated contracts with the tribes by allowing gambling in their exclusive territories. The Senecas, who operate casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca, have withheld more than $500 million since 2009 and are in binding arbitration with the state.
The Mohawks, who operate a casino on their land straddling the Canadian border, decided in October 2010 to stop making payments and have withheld $59 million.
The Oneida Indian Nation's 20-year-old compact with the state does not require revenue sharing, but it also does not grant them an exclusive territory. Cuomo suggested the Oneidas could acquire exclusive rights to their central New York territory, perhaps in context of settling long-standing land claims.
Cuomo stressed that casinos could bring badly needed economic activity to parts of upstate New York that have been struggling for generations.
But the state for generations has had only mixed success in dealing with Indian issues and it was unclear if the governor's latest attempt would work. Even Cuomo, citing long-simmering issues with the Mohawks and Senecas, said he was dubious.
"We respect the governor's comments today on the complexities of the issues, and we are engaged in a constructive dialogue with his administration," Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation Representative, said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the Senecas said they were abiding by the gag order set by arbitrators and could not comment. A Mohawk spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Cuomo hopes to strike a casino deal soon with the Legislature, which is scheduled to end it regular session June 20.
Under the governor's proposal, potential casino sites would be identified by a special selection committee. No casinos would be located in New York City for at least five years to give upstate operations a better chance to thrive, Cuomo said.
"A New York City franchise would eat at the buffet table of the upstate casinos," he said.
Host localities and counties in the region around new casinos would split 20 percent of the government's revenue, with the state getting the rest. The state uses gambling revenue for education aid.