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Let the Games Begin; Punishing Tribes for a State's Errors

Seneca Nation acquires third casino site

Check out this scenario: Let's say that 11 years ago, state and tribal
governments negotiate a good-faith gaming compact, a non-expiring deal
without provision for revenue "sharing." Gaming conducted under the compact
brings jobs and other benefits to a region struggling economically.

During those 11 years, the state, for a host of reasons that include fiscal
ineptitude by its legislative and executive branches, continues to
hemorrhage jobs and grows increasingly "financially challenged."
Dissatisfied with terms of a deal perceived as favoring the tribe and
despite federal law to the contrary, the state conceives of and fosters the
idea that it has a "right" to tribal gaming proceeds.

Never mind the fact that the existing agreement is binding, in perpetuity,
unless both sides decide to renegotiate. Never mind the fact that federal
law (IGRA) prohibits state taxation of Indian gaming.

State courts (venues where tribes rarely get a fair shake) rule the
original compact invalid due to lack of legislative approval, a procedural
problem on the state's side. Legislation approving a revised compact passes
one chamber but remains stalled in the other, another state problem.

Now a federal prosecutor enters the picture, saying that unless a progress
is made on the compact, legal action will be taken against the tribe, which
is technically breaking the law by operating a casino without a compact,
even though that lack of compact is the state's fault. Is this what the
phrase "justice is blind" means?

Variations of this scenario are in progress throughout the U.S. and Indian
country. Described here is the situation facing the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe,
whose 1993 compact with former Governor Mario Cuomo was ruled invalid by
the New York Court of Appeals in June 2003.

Threatened with closure of the rural Akwesasne Casino and the subsequent
loss of jobs and revenue while desirous of a Catskill casino, the St. Regis
government decided to renegotiate. In return for "allowing" the tribe to
operate 1,000 slot machines, which will likely increase attendance at
Akwesasne, Albany gets a cut of the take.

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Yet despite their attempt to accommodate Albany, the St. Regis Mohawks
could still incur federal ire if the Assembly continues to sit on compact
approval legislation, which was approved by the Senate in March.

Like St. Regis, the Oneida Nation's 1993 compact with former Gov. Cuomo was
challenged via a separate lawsuit, but that case remains pending. The
Nation maintains that the 1993 compact governing its Turning Stone Casino
Resort in Verona is valid and that it will withstand legal challenge.


Will the city of Buffalo, N.Y. finally get the message? Despite support
from some city and state officials, initial efforts by the Seneca Nation to
locate a casino in cash-strapped Buffalo failed, causing tribal officials
to abandon Buffalo and instead consider sites in surrounding Erie County.
Pro-Buffalo casino supporters have since talked a tough line about somehow
forcing the Senecas to locate in the city, but it now appears that the
Senecas have found a new gaming home.

On April 10, the Seneca Nation's Tribal Council approved the purchase of a
57-acre tract in suburban Cheektowaga, a few miles southeast of Buffalo, on
which it intends to build an 185,000-square-foot casino. The facility, to
be located adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and not
far from the Thruway, will include two restaurants and an entertainment
venue. But as a concession to local business owners, there will be no
on-site hotel nor will gasoline or tobacco be sold at the site.

The land deal, which requires Interior Department approval, is slated for
completion in August. Cheektowaga would lose property tax revenue from the
site, currently a business park, but would likely gain considerably more
than that from its share of casino revenues. The city of Niagara Falls
received approximately $10 million as its share of Seneca-Niagara revenue
for 2003.

Seneca Nation President Rickey L. Armstrong Sr. told the Buffalo News that
local officials in Cheektowaga had been receptive, cooperative and
welcoming. He called the decision to locate in Cheektowaga "the best
economic choice for our members."

The proposed casino would be the Senecas' third, after the Seneca-Niagara
Casino in Niagara Falls, and the soon-to-open Seneca-Allegheny Casino on
reservation land near Salamanca. The Seneca-Niagara opened on New Year's
Eve 2002 after a dramatic half-year-long construction binge at the old
Niagara Falls convention center. If reported plans to ramp up the
Cheektowaga casino by the end of this year are successful, we could witness
what former baseball great Yogi Berra once described as "Deja vu all over