Support grows for ‘guidance memo’ withdrawal

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NEW YORK – Gov. David Paterson has asked the Interior Department to undo a Bush administration policy that restricts taking off-reservation land into trust for gaming and prevents New York tribes from economic development.

Paterson wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar April 30, urging him to reverse a “guidance memorandum” issued by his predecessor, Dirk Kempthorne.

Kempthorne issued the guidance memorandum Jan. 3, 2008, and cited “commutability” as a new standard for denying off-reservation trust applications for gaming purposes – even though “commutability” does not appear anywhere in the federal regulations or procedures.

“During his tenure, Secretary Kempthorne took several actions that were not in the best interest of New York state and this specific policy prevented critical economic development that the legislature and governor’s office approved. I am confident Secretary Salazar will be more attuned to the needs of New York’s residents and our Indian nations,” Paterson said about his letter.

BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the requests to rescind the guidance memorandum are under consideration, but no decision has been made yet.

The day after announcing its new “commutability standard,” Interior notified 11 tribes that their applications for off-reservation land into trust for gaming projects were rejected, because the proposed sites were too far from the tribes’ reservations.

Of particular concern to Paterson were applications from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians. Both applications involved land in the depressed Sullivan County area of New York state.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s application for a site at the Monticello racetrack in the Catskill Mountains where it planned to build a $600 million casino resort had been in the works for nine years and was in the last stages of completion.

In 2001, in response to the devastating economic impact of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York, state legislation was passed to allow up to three Class III Indian gaming facilities in the Catskills region.

“In keeping with the intent of this legislation, the projects put forward by the Mohawks and Stockbridge-Munsee would promote economic self-sufficiency for both tribes, while breathing new life into Sullivan County’s extremely depressed economy,” Paterson wrote to Salazar. “The economic development potential associated with the projects is the stimulus these tribes and this area of the state desperately need.”

Paterson’s action was praised by the trades, which would welcome the jobs and money that new casinos would infuse into the local economy.

“The casino issue in Sullivan County has always been one step forward and three steps back. This letter from Gov. Paterson to Sec. Salazar brings us as close as ever to Class III casinos in Sullivan County,” said Todd D’Orio, the president of the Hudson Valley Building & Construction Trades. “The Hudson Valley needs jobs and casinos will bring thousands of good paying union construction jobs, and permanent jobs once built.”

Local officials in Sullivan County recently approved a casino project proposed by the Seneca Nation of Indians, which requires legislation by Congress, and they strongly support the land into trust applications and casino plans for the St. Regis Mohawk and Stockbridge-Munsee tribes.

“I thank him for his leadership and support of these two projects,” Assemblywoman Aileen M. Gunther, D-98, said. “Hopefully, the new secretary of the Interior will reconsider the previous decision and help put Sullivan County tourism and economy back on track.”

Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Jonathan F. Rouis said Paterson’s letter of support is “an important step” in gaining federal approval for casino gaming in Sullivan County.

“It is now imperative that our federal legislators lobby our cause in Washington, particularly to our new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar,” Rouis said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., supports the casino proposals and has also asked Salazar to rescind Kempthorne’s guidance memorandum.