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Wanamaker: Maine casino plans go up in flames, New York tax deadline extended

The long awaited casino referendum in Maine hit the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation like a ton of bricks. On Nov. 4, the Maine electorate squelched the promise of casino-driven economic development for the tribes and their neighbors alike. On the eve of the referendum, polls showed the electorate virtually split, making the loss not nearly as surprising as the naysayers' two-to-one margin of victory.

Pro- and anti-casino groups combined to spend some $10 million, by far the most expensive referendum campaign in Maine history. But as partisans for each side traded verbal jabs, the prospect of economic self-sufficiency for the tribes, some of Maine's neediest residents, faded into the background.

Opponents managed to direct everyone's attention to Connecticut, exploiting the simmering controversy surrounding the effect of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun on their local communities and transferring it to Maine. But such a comparison is largely unfair. No one predicted the traffic (in money, people and vehicles) the Connecticut casinos would generate - their location makes them a magnet for gamblers from southern New England, Long Island and metropolitan New York City. With the Connecticut casinos as a model, similar mistakes could be avoided.

The tribes did the right things: they found a town willing to host their casino, they agreed to significant revenue sharing. The pro-casino advocates easily outspent the naysayers, but ultimately failed to get their message across. The real issues - economic development for the tribes, thousands of direct and spin-off jobs for neighbors, and millions of dollars for the fiscally challenged state treasury - were shoved to the side in favor of hype about overcrowding, crime, morality and corruption.

Governor John Baldacci openly campaigned against the only positive economic initiative his state has seen in years. Maybe the governor can tell his constituents when the next investor will come to Maine and propose a $650 million project to create thousands of jobs, fund education and lower property taxes.

Even the Audubon Society and child welfare advocates inexplicably denounced the casino. (Yes, inexplicably - anyone who knows Indian people understands that they would never harm Mother Earth nor anybody's children.) Even outdoor apparel outfitter L.L. Bean, Maine's most well-known company, chimed in with its anti-casino two cents.

Members of both tribes have expressed outrage, bitterness and frustration over the statewide vote - charges of racism and "elitism" were heard as well. Particularly irksome was the fact that voters approved the creation of "racinos" by permitting the installation of video slot machines at Maine's horse tracks.

Any "Down Easter" who voted against Indian gaming and for horse track gaming is invited to explain how slots at a horse track are OK, but the same machines in a clean, well-regulated Indian casino are not.

"The casino was a real solution offered by the tribes to all of Maine," said Penobscot Chief Barry Dana after the vote. "Something we - as a minority - were ready to share with the 97 percent white/non-Native population of the state. We had hoped the governor would hear the message that people need to work, they need jobs, they need hope. This was to be our gift to Maine."

Tribal economic prospects, a cement plant for the Passamaquoddies, a wind farm and a water bottling plant for the Penobscots, and bingo halls for both tribes pale in comparison to what the Sanford casino might have produced.

Overnight, state-tribal relations in Maine literally went down in flames. It's up to the good people of that state to make things right.

Tax collection delayed

"Things are coming to a head in New York." Those words should sound familiar to readers of "Let the Games Begin" - they began last week's column. While tension remains between New York's Native tribes and Albany, it looks now like the parties have a bit more breathing room.

In a surprising move, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance announced on Nov. 7 that it would extend by three months a legislative deadline to begin collecting taxes from reservation sales of fuel and tobacco to non-Indians.

At the legislature's behest, the tax department drew up a plan to collect the state's cigarette and gasoline levies at the wholesale level, forcing Indian retailers to either eat the cost or pass it on to customers. That plan had been set to begin Dec. 1.

"In light of the complexity and importance of this issue, the department will use this additional time to continue to receive public comments and to evaluate and study this matter," according to a departmental statement. The public comment period will be extended while implementation is delayed at least through March 1, 2004.

The delay provides the opportunity for the state's tribes to continue negotiations with Governor George Pataki. Officials from the Mohawk, Oneida and Cayuga nations are said to be discussing means to resolve the issue.

While many Indians and non-Indians alike have denounced price or tax parity plans, these may be the most likely way to solve this sticky issue. Yes, parity will cut into Indian profits as their competitive advantage of pricing without New York's high taxes is eliminated. Tax collection for the state would presumably rise as some customers return to non-Indian retailers.

The Seneca Nation, however, has publicly declared that it neither will participate in collection nor negotiate any compromise along the lines of price or tax parity. It has launched an aggressive media and lobbying campaign to educate New Yorkers on the origins and nature of Indian sovereignty. The tax plan has particularly angered the Senecas, many of whom rely on the retail trade for their livelihood.

Seneca leaders do not condone a violent response, but say that they cannot control all of their constituents. They do not plan to cease payments to the state as required under their compact for the Seneca-Niagara Casino.

Violence on the Indians' part will only hurt their cause. Likewise, picketing an Indian-owned gas station with a fake arrow through the head not only looks foolish, it reveals an ignorance of the real issues behind the controversy. This issue is not going away, and neither side wins by digging in their heels, only by sitting down, talking and learning.

Mohawk layoffs?

Preparations are in the works to convert the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino to a Class II gaming facility, which means that 175 of the facility's 460 employees could be looking at a layoff in 60 days.

Last June, New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled the Akwesasne compact invalid because it had not been ratified by the Legislature. The state Senate has since OK'd the 1993 compact, but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has stalled the vote in an attempt to secure slot revenue for the state.

Gov. Pataki has appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to decide by Nov. 17 whether to hear it. If the Supreme Court decides not to take up the matter, the Court of Appeals ruling is final. In that event, Chief James W. Ransom told the Associated Press that the casino would be downgraded from Class III to Class II, thus removing it from any kind state compact requirements.