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State, Senecas Still Locked in Gaming War as Deadline Approaches

By Tony Farina

Barry Snyder, President of Senecas.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Tony Farina

There was a time in recent days, according to informed sources, that the state believed the Senecas had burned through the $600 million in its revenue sharing escrow account and couldn't pay the state the money it owes under the gaming compact even if it wanted to negotiate a settlement.

"They [the Senecas] turned down a very attractive package offered by the state to settle the gaming dispute," according to a source familiar with the negotiations. "That led many inside the Cuomo camp to speculate the money was no longer there and because of their weak bond rating they couldn't borrow the money."

But over the weekend, sources say that after a closer look, the governor's people now believe the money ($600 million) is still available to make good on the gaming compact arrears if a settlement can be negotiated but that no deal is imminent even as the end of the legislative session draws near.

The package offered by the state was said to be similar to the deal the governor negotiated with the Oneida Indian Nation last month that will give the state an extra $50 million a year in casino revenue in exchange for giving the Oneida Nation exclusive rights to casino gaming in Central New York.

It settled "multiple, long-standing disputes between the State of New York, the Oneida Nation of Indians, Oneida County and Madison County," according to the governor's office.

But it doesn't appear that the Oneida agreement produced any momentum in the negotiations with the Senecas-- even with a discounted payment schedule reportedly offered by Cuomo-- who believe they already have an exclusivity agreement contained in the 2002 gaming compact that has been violated by the state with the opening of three race track "racinos " in the Western New York exclusivity zone.

And sources close to the Seneca Nation say it is unlikely the Seneca leadership would be able to sell any kind of agreement to its people given the bad blood that has been created between Cuomo and the Nation in the more than three-year long dispute that has seen the Senecas withhold more than $600 million in revenue sharing in protest against the lucrative state racinos.

With the legislative session drawing to a close (June 20), it now looks like the Senecas will not make a deal before that date and instead will await the outcome of the arbitration process that so far has played second fiddle to the very public war between Cuomo and the Senecas.

That verbal jousting heated up again last week when Seneca President Barry Snyder traveled to Albany to try and lobby lawmakers to honor the Senecas' exclusivity deal on gambling rights in the face of Cuomo's push to expand gambling in the state including putting a non-Indian casino in Western New York to compete with the Senecas because no settlement has been reached.

Snyder, who called Cuomo a "bully" twice during his Albany visit, told lawmakers "we'll do what we can, but it has to be equitable to the nation. It can't be any other way." The three Seneca casinos employ close to 6,000 people, many of them non-Indians, according to Snyder.

As the war of words continues the three casino host cities in Western New York (Buffalo, Salamanca, and Niagara Falls) can only watch and wait. For Niagara Falls, the outlook is indeed grim.

Already in trouble over the lack of $60 million in casino revenue sharing over the last three years and stung by a highly critical state audit, Niagara Falls is getting the worst of the fallout from the bitter dispute.

Mayor Paul Dyster is still hoping for a settlement but that appears to be wishful thinking at this point. The mayor says without the casino funds, the city will hit the wall in November when it comes to cash flow.

"Our best option [at that point] would be to use the $13.4 million NYPA spin-up," Dyster said during an interview, an option the council turned down in the current budget because lawmakers claimed it threatened the future of $850,000-a-year payments to the city for the next 44 years under the Power Authority's relicensing agreement.

Dyster said that while the city may be able to get an extra $1 million in a private borrowing, it would not offer the spin-back option available under the NYPA deal should the casino money eventually come in.

Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian says he's still not sure about the NYPA option, saying "it might not even be enough to get us through this year," and that the Dyster Administration has just not provided lawmakers with enough information about the city's current fiscal situation.

"We've asked for updates and we are just not getting much," said Choolokian. "And if it comes down to the NYPA money, you can rest assured there will be no funds available for any of the mayor's pet projects and the money will be used to protect the taxpayers."

Crunch time is just around the corner for Niagara Falls and the clock is ticking.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

JUN 11, 2013