By Nathan Mayberg
ALBANY July 15, 2005 The non-stop action that is the spinning roulette wheel of Native American casino interests in New York State is set to resume again at the end of this month.
As is now widely known, New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno killed a bill designed to allow the St. Regis Mohawks to build a casino in Monticello, because he wanted the legislation to include the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans (based in Wisconsin) and the Oneidas of Wisconsin. The latter has hired Brunos son as a lobbyist.
New York State Governor George Pataki has only settled land claims with the Mohawks. He initially settled with four other tribes but pulled back the legislation settling those claims after the New York State Assembly would not support it and a United States Supreme Court case dealt a heavy blow to the efforts of Native American tribes to regain land they once owned. City vs. Sherrill ruled against the Oneida Indian Nation of New York to purchase land outside their reservation and claim it as sovereign Indian land.
New York State Senator John Bonacic, a Republican whose district includes all of Sullivan County, said recently that land claim settlements with tribes may no longer be necessary in the casino approval process.
He based that in part on a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which followed the Supreme Court in striking down Indian land claims this time by the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York and Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma. Both hope to build casinos adjacent to the Monticello Raceway and at the old Concord Resort with Empire Resorts.
The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a judgment of more than $247 million which was handed down by the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. There was only one dissenter, Janet Hall, who also concurred with part of the majoritys decision.
The two main reasons it did so was the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, as well as the length of time (about 200 years) the tribe took to file suit against the state after selling its land.
The majority opinion, written by Jose Cabranes, said they decided the way they did because of the tribes long delay in seeking equitable relief against New York or its local units and developments [in the area] spanning several generations. This court has recognized the impracticability of returning to Indian control land that generations earlier passed into numerous private hands.
Bonacic said that he was supportive of Patakis latest bill to allow for a Mohawk casino in Sullivan County.
I saw it as an opportunity for Sullivan County. . . . My only concern was the community fund. The governor did not give me that language or sufficient money.
Bonacic has pushed for a community fund allocated by the state to cover some of the monetary impacts the county would face due to a casino. According to him, Pataki offered a $10 million limited annual fund at the last minute. Bonacic called the move inadequate.
However, the senator said that discussions have been ongoing since the end of the session last month over the community fund. He is still confident that he will arrive at a satisfactory agreement with the governor, although he said Pataki wont move higher than his $10 million offer. Bonacic is currently shooting for a $25 million annual fund
Bonacic said that when the fund is finally agreed upon and a casino is operating, the community fund will be divided up by a casino board made up of the governor, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Bruno, and officials from various state departments, as well as local input.
The senator said that help is also on the way for the currently jam-packed Route 42,which would be the gateway for two of the proposed casinos, including the Mohawks. A federal highway bill, as well as an upcoming state bond act, could release over $36 billion in highway funds for the state.
Bonacic said he believed a majority of the county supported at least one casino in the area. He pointed out that the four largest town boards Fallsburg, Liberty, Mamakating and Thompson all voted for five casinos in the county.
They make up 64 percent of the population in the county, he said.
However, he acknowledged the opposition as a vocal minority, in his view.
Mark Hansen, Brunos Deputy Director of Communications, said recently that the State Legislature already passed a bill (in 2001) to allow for three casinos in the Catskills. Therefore, Bruno wants to pass all three together or none at all.
As for Bonacics attempts to gain an annual community fund, Hansen said, We are taking a close look at it.