Gaming Dispute Takes Back Seat to Budget

By Tony Farina

The developing crisis between the Seneca Nation and the state in the gaming dispute over revenue sharing payments is taking a back seat these days to the budget negotiations in Albany as lawmakers and the governor try to meet the April 1 budget deadline.

“It is definitely on the back burner right now,” said one lawmaker, “but the word is the governor and the Seneca president hope to get together to discuss the issue after the budget is passed.  And it is our understanding that the two have talked and that meeting will happen very soon.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Seneca President Todd Gates have plenty to talk about since the Senecas announced last week that they will stop making revenue sharing payments to the state after this week’s payment of about $30 million (from last December) because, according to Gates, the obligation to the state contained in the compact that began in 2002 has ended with no further payments scheduled.  That’s about $110 million a year that will not be flowing to the state and to the three Western New York host cities, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Salamanca.

Meanwhile, we have learned that four of the five Niagara Falls councilmembers have met with Seneca leaders over the last several days as the Senecas have been anxious to let local leaders know they still want to be good neighbors and help with various economic development projects, although the discussions have been very general.

“They feel they’ve been wronged by the state on exclusivity with all the racetrack casinos,” said one lawmaker speaking on condition of anonymity.  “We believe they will continue to meet with local officials and explain their position and indicate they still want to be good neighbors and develop relationships with the various government entities going forward.  But there has been no talk of future payments.”

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster has taken a low profile in the revenue sharing crisis, apparently waiting to see what happens when the governor and the Senecas talk directly.  It is the same don’t-stir-the-pot approach he took during the last gaming crisis that was settled in 2013, deferring to the state until an agreement was finally reached.

For Niagara Falls, the decision by the Senecas to stop revenue sharing payments won’t really hit until next year, according to one lawmaker.  But in all, Niagara Falls receives about $17 million a year from the state from Seneca gaming proceeds and it would be a severe challenge to make up that money if there are no further payments.

Assemblyman Angelo Morinello (R. C. – Niagara Falls) said last week that he had been contacted by the president of the Senecas and assured “that they do not wish to negatively impact the host communities, and if necessary, they will assist the host communities directly.”

The current round of goodwill talks involving Seneca leaders and local officials can certainly be seen in that light although, as one lawmaker said, “we need to be concerned about the wellbeing of our community going forward.  That’s why we’re trying to see where they are coming from, and the best way to do that is by talking to them.  Hopefully, it will be helpful in finding a solution satisfactory to all.”

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