UTICA, N.Y. -- Odds for a state versus Indian tax confrontation over
reservation sales took a dramatic turn on the eve of the legal deadline,
when a new poll by the well-respected Zogby International survey firm
showed that an overwhelming majority of New York state voters supported the
The result was a major surprise, given the drumbeat of calls by politicians
and upstate newspapers for immediate action against reservation businesses.
Foreshadowed by an earlier poll by the American Indian Policy and Media
Initiative at Buffalo State College that showed wide public support for the
tax sovereignty of the state's tribes, Zogby's release provides ironclad
The Zogby results heartened tribal business groups, which have been
organizing in opposition to the state tax law. "Most New Yorkers understand
that the tribal nations are not the cause of the state's economic woes,"
said P.J. Herne, attorney for the Akwesasne Petroleum Cooperative. The poll
was commissioned by the Seneca Business Steering Committee. Indian
entrepreneurs on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation have also organized a
business task force to develop a strategy on the tax issue.
St. Regis Tribal Council spokesman Brendan White said the Zogby findings
energized Indian efforts overall. "It goes to show that the average state
voter has a good understanding of tribal issues," he said.
The administration of Gov. George Pataki has not attempted to collect sales
tax on reservation sales to non-Indians since 1997, when attempts to force
tribal tax agreements sparked a round of grass-roots protests. Indian
activists closed interstate highways along or through several upstate
reservations. When state police actions ended in violence, Pataki suspended
the tax regulations and promised "to respect tribal sovereignty."
Under intense lobbying by convenience store and gas station groups,
however, the Legislature since 2003 repeatedly ordered state tax officials
to prepare for collecting the sales tax on March 1 of this year. In the
annual budget message, Pataki ordered the deadline extended a year to allow
legislation for an alternate route of negotiated tax compacts. Political
opponents charged he wanted to put off a potential crisis until after he
left office and started a possible run for president. State Attorney
General Eliot Spitzer, the likely Democratic nominee for governor this
year, called for enforcement of the tax law.
Although most editorial writers are echoing Spitzer, the Zogby poll
indicates that voters resoundingly disagree. The survey released on
deadline day, March 1, found that 79 percent of respondents overall backed
Gov. Pataki's tax delay. A roughly equal number, 78 percent, agreed that
the Legislature should suspend enforcement. The survey question contained a
qualifying phrase that the purpose of the delay was "to give a federally
recognized Indian nation time to file a federal suit," but other responses
indicated more general support for the tribes.
An overall 65 percent disagreed that the state should "begin to attempt to
collect sales taxes on items sold on Indian reservations." On the contrary,
78 percent agreed that state and federal governments should honor the 1842
treaty with the Seneca Nation that guarantees freedom of Seneca lands from
The survey was sponsored by the Seneca Business Steering Committee, which
last year launched a television and print ad campaign in western New York
defending the Seneca treaty. But Zogby found strong public support for all
tribes. The favorable rating for New York tribes was 80 percent and for
Indian businesspeople 73 percent, a surprising result in the face of
incessant anti-Indian rhetoric from upstate property owners and small
business groups. In contrast, Pataki had a favorable rating of 50 percent.
Only 44 percent had a favorable opinion of the state Legislature, which was
the only party in the survey with a higher negative rating, at 47 percent.
The negative opinion of Indian entrepreneurs stood at a low 13 percent; of
tribes, an even lower 11 percent.
Zogby also found it "significant how broad-based the support for the Indian
tribe's position is." It said support crossed political and geographic
lines and was "high among all age groups and both genders." More than 70
percent in all three of the state's main regions agreed with suspending the
deadlines, although the level was lowest in the more conservative upstate,
where most reservations are located. Support was highest in New York City.
Democrats were far more sympathetic than Republicans, even though Pataki's
deference to tax sovereignty coincided with the Republican "supply-side"
policy on using tax breaks to encourage economic development.
Pro-Indian responses were highest when questions introduced the issue of
honoring the 1842 Seneca treaty. Agreement ranged from 71 percent upstate
to 79 percent in the "swing suburbs" to 86 percent in New York City. On the
core question of collecting sales taxes on the reservation, upstate and
suburbs tied at 62 percent against the attempt while New York City opposed
it by 73 percent. Zogby noted that Republicans were evenly divided but that
Democrats and independents were overwhelmingly against state action.
Zogby conducted its survey Feb. 20 -- 24, when the issue of enforcing the
deadline received prominent coverage. The survey pool was a large 902
likely voters, giving it a lower than usual margin of error of plus or
minus 3.3 percentage points. The results largely coincide with earlier
Zogby polls and the independent AIPMI survey conducted at Buffalo State
If anything, in fact, support for the tribes has risen since the tax issue
became more heated. In January 2004, Zogby found that 53 percent of New
Yorkers opposed the state's plan to tax reservation sales and that nearly
two-thirds thought it violated the U.S. Constitution. The earlier poll
indicated that a favorable opinion of the tribes has risen sharply in the
suburbs and New York City. In the 2004 poll, which singled out the Buffalo
area, pro-tribal sentiment was highest in the western New York 716 area
code at 75 percent, compared to 44 percent in the rest of upstate, 43
percent in the suburbs and only 32 percent in New York City. The 2004 poll
interviewed 700 likely voters by telephone, chosen at random through the
The AIPMI conducted face-to-face interviews with 426 people in the Buffalo
area during the spring of 2005. Although its sample was smaller than
Zogby's, it was still statistically valid. The 22-part questionnaires were
designed by professors with polling experience and yielded more details on
The AIPMI survey found strong pro-Indian opinion across political divisions
and gender lines. At least two-thirds of self-described liberals, moderates
and conservatives agreed that treaty provisions barring state taxes on
reservation sales should apply to non-Indians as well as Indians. The same
breakdown applied when AIPMI asked if revenue from any taxation should go
to the tribal government rather than the state. Some 68 percent said tribes
should receive the revenue.
The survey found that 79 percent agreed or strongly agreed that all
purchasers, Indian or non-Indian, should benefit from tax-free reservation
sales. "Not surprisingly," it said, strongest support for this statement
came from people who shop on reservations, a whopping 89 percent.
The report also noted that pro-Indian public opinion was sharply at odds
with an apparent bias against tribes in the reporting of many upstate
newspapers. A content analysis section of the report concluded, "Newspapers
are more likely to accept assertions by New York State officials that the
state has a right and ability to collect taxes on purchases by non-Indians
on Indian lands." It recommended a series of efforts by Indian tribes and
businesses to mobilize their public support.
The full report, "Public Opinion on American Indians and Taxation Issues in
Western New York," is available on the Buffalo State College Communications
Department Web site.