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Poll on Racetrack Casinos Skewed by Incomplete Information

A new poll that claims New York state residents favor allowing casino gambling at racetracks rather than expanded gaming at Indian-run facilities gave respondents inaccurate and incomplete information about Indian casinos.

The survey, complete with maps and bar graphs, was conducted by Kiley and Company of Boston on behalf of the New York Gaming Association (NYGA). The association represents nine racetracks that are lobbying for a change in the state Constitution to allow their facilities to convert from the existing video lottery terminals to full casinos with slot machines, poker and other table games. The NYGA members paid for the survey, President James D. Featherstonhaugh told reporters on a conference call Oct. 26.

Respondents were given what social researchers call emotionally loaded information, which was likely to bias them against Indian casinos. For example, on page 10 of the survey’s key findings in a list headlined “Strongest Reasons for Supporting Our Proposal: Spend Gambling Money in NY; More Revenue for the State,” respondents were told, “Unlike Indian Casinos, which will provide no revenues to the state this year, the racetrack casinos currently provide over $500 million a year in revenue to New York.”

With that information in mind, the respondents were presented five pages later with the following: “There are currently five Indian-run casinos in Upstate New York that operate under special agreement with the state and federal government. These Indian tribes oppose allowing any enhancement of gambling at non-Indian casinos, saying it would create more competition for their own facilities. The tribes say that any additional gambling in New York State should be limited to new or expanded Indian-run facilities. If it came down to a choice between allowing enhanced casino gambling at the nine racetracks currently in operation in the state or allowing expanded casino gambling only at Indian-run facilities, which option would you favor?”

The key finding regarding is, “Voters Overwhelmingly Prefer Our Nine-Racetrack Proposal To An Indian- Only Plan.” The result shows that by a “decisive margin (62% to 24%) voters prefer the racetrack expansion proposal to the approach advocated by the state’s Indian tribes, that any additional gambling in New York State be limited to new or expanded Indian-run facilities,” the survey says.

The survey also reports in a note at the bottom of the page that respondents increased their opposition to Indian-only casinos by 70 percent to 16 percent after they were told “that Indian casinos have stopped paying a portion of their revenue to the state.”

While it’s true that Indian casinos will not provide direct payments to the state this year, the pollsters failed to tell the respondents that the Seneca Nation of Indians and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe are withholding payments to the state because they say the state of violating the exclusivity provisions of their tribal-state gaming compacts by allowing private businesses and state run racetrack casinos to operate slot machines in their exclusivity zones. The tribes pay the state 25 percent of their slot revenues in return for guanteeing each tribe an exclusivity zone. In late 2010, Seneca announced it had withheld its exclusivity payments to the state since 2009. In October 2010, the St. Regis tribe announced it would being to withhold payments because the state had allowed a casino to operate slots in the Mohawk zone. Both tribes have held the payments—which now amount to hundreds of millions of dollars—in escrow accounts while the compact violations are under negotiation.

Asked why the information about the exclusivity conflict was withheld when conducting the poll, Tom Kiley told reporters on the conference call that he didn’t want to include “secondary or tertiary” information. Kiley did not respond to email and phone messages seeking more information.

According to the Seneca Nation, the exclusivity provision of the compact, which was signed in 2002, has been violated since 2003 when the state allowed slot machines to operate in the Nation’s exclusivity zone in western New York.

"What is plain fact is that the Seneca Nation has made $475 million in exclusivity payments and has held another $330 million in escrow. The Nation is and has been ready, willing and able to make up-to-date payments,” Seneca Council Chairman Richard Nephew said. Nephew said the Nation has reached out repeatedly to the state during the past two administrations “for meaningful, substantive dialogue to resolve the compact dispute.” The Seneca nation has proposed a number ways it could make direct payments to local municipalities that are feeling the crunch from the lack of revenues, which usually go from the Nation to the state, and then to the cities. “We continue to seek that dialogue and continue to propose ways in which we can honor the 2002 Compact and our end of the agreement despite the fact that the state is and has remained in breach of the compact since the arrival of VLTs at the racetracks in our exclusivity zone.”

Clearly frustrated with the lack of movement to resolve the issue, Nephew said the Nation has offered to make payments “even though the compact has been violated; even though NYS has failed to honor the agreement it made with the Seneca Nation. The compact is a binding legal contract that we honored with exclusivity payments right up until 2009-- even though the compact had been breached as far back as 2003. The compact is being violated still today. And yet still, the Seneca desire to make things right with the local host communities. The Seneca believe honoring the agreement we made with the State is the right thing to do."

To omit information about the contributions that Indian nations make to the state economy while touting the racetracks’ $500 million annual revenue to the state is also misleading, tribal leaders said.

The Oneida Indian Nation employs nearly 5,000 people in Central New York, said Oneida Nation Representative and CEO Ray Halbritter. “Turning Stone, our destination resort, brings more than four and half million visitors a year into our community, and over 1,000 business meetings and wedding receptions. We have a payroll exceeding $125 million per year that is invested directly into our local economy. Last year alone, we spent more than $285 million for goods and services, the majority of that money going to support local businesses here in our home community.”

The Oneida Nation, unlike commercial gaming facilities, also invests in a diverse range of businesses in the community, Halbritter said. “Our other operations, which also employ our neighbors, include the SavOn chain of convenience stores, RV Park, three marinas, Indian Country Today Media Network, Four Directions Productions, a fishing lodge, and a car care center. The Oneida people are from here, and we are staying here: Nobody fears that we will pick up and move someplace else, leaving the community to clean up behind us.”

Mark Emery, Oneida’s director of public relations, said other important information is omitted from the debate. "What the proponents of commercial gaming are not telling the hardworking people of the State of New York is that these gaming companies take their profits outside of this state to invest elsewhere and long term economic development in New York remains a dream,” Emery said. “When New Yorkers are presented with all the facts, we believe they will reject the effort to turn the state into Atlantic City where commercial gaming has led to depleted city revenues, increased crime, and urban decay; unlike Indian gaming where the profits are reinvested locally and the business will never leave the state.”