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Senecas vote 'Yes' on gaming referendum

CATTARAUGUS and ALLEGANY INDIAN RESERVATIONS, N.Y. ? In a cliffhanger that could alter the economic landscape of western New York State, the Seneca Nation of Indians by a mere 101 votes, approved a casino compact May 14 negotiated with Republican Gov. George Pataki.

A contentious debate over the merits of gaming and negotiating with the state government had wracked the nation for several weeks prior to the balloting. In the end, 2,053 of 4,561 eligible voters took part in the referendum and backed the proposed compact by a tally of 1,077 to 976. The tribe has 7,118 enrolled members.

According to the Buffalo News, the referendum passed on the Cattaraugus Reservation by 779 to 659, but was defeated on the Allegany Reservation by 317 to 298, reflecting deep divisions within the Nation over the issue of gaming.

Tribal members reportedly traveled from as far away as Virginia and Florida to cast their ballots. Reports of alleged vote buying were also widespread, but unconfirmed.

The compact would allow the Nation to build and operate three casinos in the region, one each in the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and a third on one of the tribe's reservations. While active opposition to the proposed casinos exists in both cities, political officials have lauded the deal as a way to attract tourists, create jobs and revitalize a region that has lost thousands of jobs over the past several years.

"These new facilities ? represent another major step in our continuing commitment to revitalizing Western New York's economy," Gov. Pataki said in a statement.

After the favorable vote, tribal officials were reported to have said that a temporary casino in the Niagara Falls Convention Center could open by the end of the year.

The compact still has several hurdles to clear. Federal approval from BIA must still be secured, and Gov. Pataki has yet to put his signature on the agreement.

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A May 2 ruling by the state Appellate Division requires the governor to seek legislative input on all Indian gaming compacts. Prior to the beginning of negotiations, Gov. Pataki was given a "rubber stamp" by the state Legislature to frame the deal for the state at his discretion. The court's ruling, which specifically addressed a casino in Northern New York operated by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, calls the Seneca arrangement into doubt. The state has said it will appeal the decision.

In addition, the October legislation authorizing the compact negotiation contains a provision requiring labor union access to and organization of casino employees. The compact contains no such language, but the provision could cause problems as the deal is implemented.

Over its 14-year term, the compact could create hundreds if not thousands of jobs for both Senecas and non-Indians. It would also generate a potentially lucrative revenue stream for both the state and the tribe. The deal calls for a sliding scale of "contributions" to the state beginning at 18 percent of slot machine revenues, which would increase to 25 percent by the deal's eighth year. The cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls are to receive a 6.25 percent of the state's take. Tribal officials have reportedly estimated their windfall to be between $2 billion and $4 billion over the life of the deal.

On May 10, anti-gaming members of the tribe sought to block the vote through a temporary restraining order in the tribe's Peacemakers Court. The court rejected their petition on May 13, allowing the balloting to proceed.

Compact opponents had hoped to capitalize on a deep-seated and long-standing mistrust of the state among Senecas to defeat the compact. In 1964, the state built the Kinzua Dam on the Allegany River, flooding a third of the tribe's reservation there and forcing the relocation of many Senecas. In 1997, tribal members clashed with the state over its proposal to tax gasoline and cigarettes sold by Senecas to non-Indians.

Some Seneca opponents also expressed moral objections to establishing casinos on tribal lands. Others felt that the deal threatened tribal sovereignty. Specifically, many Senecas objected to making payments from casino revenues to the state, state involvement in regulating the casinos and the above-mentioned stipulation giving labor unions the opportunity to organize casino employees. An anti-casino group of Senecas is reportedly planning to file a complaint with BIA.

Non-Indian opponents of the casinos trumpeted the usual arguments that supposedly unregulated gambling at Indian-owned casinos will attract organized crime, prostitution and corruption in general.

Phone calls to Seneca President Cyrus M. Schindler's office seeking comment went unreturned at press time.