Surprise anti-casino vote demonstrates strength of backlash

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ALBANY, N.Y. - With unexpected speed, the New York State Senate passed a bill in restricting future Indian-owned casinos, the latest sign of what some tribal leaders see as growing hostility to Indian gaming, and Indians, in the Northeast.

The Senate rushed through a measure June 13 requiring legislative and local approval for certain kinds of state gaming compacts with tribes. The vote was 61 to zero. Details fit the tangled and highly visible plans for a St. Regis Mohawk-owned casino in the Catskills, a day-trip distance from New York City.

The bill comes on the heels of a virulent advertising campaign against the St. Regis Mohawk, which an Albany paper has traced to agents of casino mogul Donald Trump. A Catskills casino is widely believed to pose a competitive threat to Trump's Atlantic City holdings.

Emotions over casinos and land claims also are running high in neighboring Connecticut, threatening to derail pending federal recognition for several historic tribes.

Passage of the bill caught the St. Regis Tribal Council off guard, partly because council members were preoccupied with recent elections, said spokeswoman Rowena General.

"We were quite surprised it was so quietly done in the legislative session. We didn't have any prior notice."

The original bill was submitted by New York Gov. George Pataki, who already signed a compact for the tribal casino. But the Senate Rules Committee added several major restrictions which will make future compacts harder to negotiate.

In a major blow at future profits, the bill bans slot machines, which were allowed in the governor's original bill. It also nibbles at tribal sovereignty, requiring that New York's labor law, the workers compensation law and the human rights law apply to anyone building the casino or working at it.

The bill applies to casinos built off-reservation on land held in trust by the federal government. This little-used provision in the Indian Gaming Regulation Act is the basis for the hotly contested St. Regis plan for one of several sites in Monticello, in a Catskills resort region now in steep decline.

"This legislation would assure that there is sufficient state and local input into any gaming contracts for a casino on non-tribal lands," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican. "Most importantly, it will give the ultimate say to residents of the county where a casino is proposed."

General said the tribe's basic gaming compact would not be endangered because it was signed before the bill was proposed. She said the labor protection was no problem for the tribe which, she said, has always been pro-union. General noted the bill must now go to the State Assembly, which she said she strongly doubts will approve it. Nonetheless, tribal lawyers are going through the fine print in the measure and still aren't sure what effect it could have, she said.

The bill originally was meant to deal with constitutional objections to the governor's power to make gaming compacts. But the emotional background has been roiled by an ad campaign accusing the St. Regis Mohawk of "drug smuggling, money laundering, trafficking in illegal immigrants and violence."

The ads cite several well-publicized cases without noting that tribal police assisted in the investigations and helped make arrests. The ads were placed in papers as far afield as South Carolina by the New York Institute for Law & Society based in Rome, N.Y., heart of Oneida country, embroiled in a long-running land-claim issue.

An investigative report in the Albany Times-Herald traced the ads to Donald Trump, via the political activist Roger Stone who headed Trump's presidential campaign.

"What we're seeing in New York State is a lot of racism, very blatant racism, that doesn't seem to merit police or political attention," General said. "They wouldn't be allowed to do this against any other group."