ALBANY, N.Y. - Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, recently threatened to block retroactive approval of a gaming compact with the St. Regis Mohawk Indians unless progress is made toward opening a casino in the Catskills. While Silver's "concern" for Indian gaming is welcome, his tactics are questionable.
According to a report in the Middletown Times Herald-Record, Silver said that the Catskills, a region for which three Indian casinos were authorized by the Legislature in October 2001, are "crying out for the economic development," which "for some reason ? has not happened."
Catskill casinos have not materialized for a number of reasons, many of which are beyond the control of the St. Regis Mohawks or any other single tribe. The Mohawks have already partnered with a developer/operator (actually their second) and drawn up blueprints. They've acquired land, performed an environmental assessment and met with local officials. A previous Mohawk government also attempted, to no avail, to negotiate a comprehensive settlement covering land claims, tax issues and a Catskill casino. It's hardly as if the Mohawks are dragging their feet.
Because the Catskill region lies outside of any current tribal land claim areas, the BIA must take land into trust for whichever tribe is given the rights to a specific casino. This of course adds cost and time to the overall process. In early October, the BIA announced it would initiate the trust process for the proposed Mohawk site, a resort near Monticello. While the tribe still must complete an environmental impact study, the announcement was the first such trust action and a welcome development.
But the BIA announcement came within days of a statement by Governor George Pataki that he would consider compact negotiations with out-of-state tribes, a 180-degree reversal of his long-standing refusal to do so. And that reversal came on the heels of a late September announcement by Pataki and other New York politicians supporting federal legislation to prevent tribes from crossing state lines to open gaming facilities. What gives?
New York's casino compact negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors; reports of progress or who's even in the running have been sketchy. But Pataki's latest flip-flops make it look like all he's really interested in is casino revenue for the state with little concern for New York's tribes.
Based on last week's BIA action, the Mohawks appear to be farthest along in the race for a Catskill casino. If Silver is holding hostage their existing Akwesasne Casino, which has 500 employees and has been open for four years, he is playing irresponsible politics. Consider this - the state has renewed dormant attempts to force reservation-based Indian businesses to collect state taxes with a deadline of Dec. 1. Could Silver's grandstanding be some sort of ploy to force Mohawk concessions in tax negotiations?
On June 12, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled that the 1993 compact governing operations of the Akwesasne Casino in Hogansburg was invalid because it had not received legislative approval. The state Senate, controlled by Republicans, has since OK'd the compact, but Silver has managed to keep the Democrat-dominated Assembly from voting.
The Mohawk compact was negotiated with former Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo, who was replaced by Republican Pataki in 1994. The Akwesasne Casino opened in April 1999.
Silver, a Democrat representing New York County (Manhattan) has been speaker since 1994; he was first elected to the Assembly in 1976.