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St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, New York State Agreement Ends Exclusivity Dispute

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and New York State have reached an agreement that will end a three-year dispute over the tribe’s gaming exclusivity zone.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and New York State have reached an agreement that will end a three-year dispute over the tribe’s gaming exclusivity zone and revenue-sharing from its slot machine profits and begin a process to resolve the Indian nation’s longstanding land rights lawsuits.

Both St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued press releases on Tuesday, May 21, announcing the agreement, which has been memorialized in a Memorandum of Understanding. The MOU is “the first step to addressing longstanding land claims with Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties, outstanding issues with the New York Power Authority and resolve the revenue sharing dispute with New York State,” the SRMT release says.

“We’ve waited many years for a governor who was willing to sit down with all the parties to the land claim to come to a negotiated settlement,” SRMT Chief Ron LaFrance Jr., one of the tribe’s three chiefs, said. “Governor Cuomo has accomplished much in the short time we’ve been meeting directly with him. He has given us assurances that our outstanding issues will be dealt with fairly.”

Cuomo congratulated tribal leaders for their cooperation. "By working together and finding common ground, the state and Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe have reached a fair and reasonable agreement that will grant the tribe exclusive gaming rights in the north country, and provide the state and local governments with their share of revenues from the casino," Cuomo said. "I commend the collaborative spirit in which all parties came together to forge this agreement."

As part of the agreement, SRMT will pay the state $30 million – part of the slot machine revenues the tribe has withheld in an escrow account in a three-year dispute over a violation of its exclusivity zone, which includes Franklin, St. Lawrence, Clinton, Essex, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lewis and Warren Counties. The tribe discontinued slot revenue-sharing payments to New York in late 2010, maintaining that the state had violated the tribe’s gaming exclusivity zone by allowing the installation and operation of slot machines at the Ganienkeh Territorial Bingo, which is located in Clinton County about an hour away from Akwesasne, the Mohawk territory.

The state will divide 25 percent of the $30 million payment between St. Lawrence and Franklin counties, providing $3.75 million to each county, which includes the payments to the affected towns in each county. “The tribe will resume making on-going revenue sharing payments according to the regular schedule as defined in the compact amounting to 25 percent of net gaming revenue. The state will divide 25 percent of its share between St. Lawrence and Franklin counties,” Cuomo’s press release says.

In exchange, the MOU will guarantee that the SRMT will retain its exclusive authorization to operate slot machines within its eight-county exclusivity zone – a guarantee already established in the tribal-state gaming compact – by a promise that Cuomo’s proposed legislation to authorize seven commercial casinos in the remainder of the state will exclude those counties.

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The proposed legislation to expand gaming in the state requires approval by voters at a referendum that Cuomo wants to hold in November, according to the New York Post.

The MOU also provides for the governor to “convene discussions among the state, the tribe, and St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties to resolve unrelated disputes involving land claims and New York Power Authority issues.” The remaining revenue share will be held in escrow pending resolution of these outstanding issues.

The SRMT-state agreement comes less than a week after the announcement that the Oneida Indian Nation and New York State has entered a historic agreement to end all disputes over land rights, tax issues, gaming exclusivity and profits between the two sovereigns. As part of that agreement, the Oneida Nation agreed to collect sales tax equal to or greater than New York State and counties’ taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel and other items sold by Indian retailers to non-Indian customers and must adhere to the state’s minimum pricing for cigarettes. However, the announcement from SRMT and the state made no mention of cigarette taxes. (Related story: Oneida Nation and New York State Enter ‘Historic’ Revenue Sharing)

St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Chief Randy Hart, who was not in Albany on May 21 for the signing of the historic agreement, said that Cuomo “reached out” to the Mohawk leadership a week ago. “We saw this as an opportunity to reopen discussions on settlement of our (land) claims. To our surprise, the governor accepted the challenge. Our claims have been in the courts of the United States for over thirty years. This is the first time since 2007, that New York State has been willing to sit down and talk settlement. We are optimistic that, with his commitment and with all of the parties at the table, we can make real progress.”

The SRMT’s land rights claim includes an area of approximately six square miles guaranteed as Mohawk territory in the 1796 Treaty with the Seven Nations. Last November the federal government intervened in the case in support of the tribe’s claim. (Related story: Federal Government Supports Mohawk Land Claim)

St. Regis Chief Paul Thompson said Cuomo has shown he is “sincere” in his commitment to bring together all of the parties, including the tribe, St. Lawrence and Franklin counties, and the New York Power Authority, together to resolve the tribe’s outstanding claims. The power struggle goes back several years. In March, 2009, the tribe protested to then-Gov. David Paterson about a unilateral decision by the New York Power Authority to divert electrical power that was supposed to be set aside for the tribe’s use. (Related story: Power Struggle Sparks St. Regis Mohawk Protest)

“For the counties and the Power Authority, a negotiated settlement will bring finality and the beginning of a new relationship with the tribe,” Thompson said. “We look forward to working together on these and other matters of significance to the tribe and to our neighbors.” Thompson signed an agreement with former Gov. George Pataki in 2003 that was to resolve many of these same issues, according to the SRMT press release. “This governor has the ability to make things happen,” Thompson said. “We believe it is about time that the state follows through on the promises made to the Mohawks in 2003, and later with the signing of the Land Claim Settlement Agreement. We thank Governor Cuomo for agreeing to help make that happen.”