Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration on Tuesday struck a deal with the Saint Regis-Mohawk Tribe that maintains the sovereign nation’s exclusive rights to operate a casino in the northernmost part of the state.
The deal takes eight counties in the North Country off the table as Cuomo and lawmakers consider where and how to site potential non-Indian casinos. It also increases pressure on the Seneca Indian Nation, which is locked in a battle with the state over more than $550 million in gambling revenues and the validity of its own casino rights in western New York.
As part of the agreement, the Mohawks will release $30 million of the $60 million in payments to the state that have been held up by the tribe since a breakaway group opened a gambling operating within its exclusivity zone several years ago. The remaining $30 million will be held in escrow as the state and the tribe continue negotiations on a land dispute.
“The only way to get to a better tomorrow is by resolving the issues of yesterday,” Cuomo said. “Today is a major step forward. There are still other issues to work through and they are complicated and significant, but I think talking to the leadership of the county and the tribe, I think we’re going to get there.”
Cuomo has proposed allowing three upstate casinos as part of his initial plan to legalize a limited number of non-Indian casinos. Between the Mohawk deal and a separate agreement last week with the Oneida Indian Nation that secured casino rights to 10 counties in central New York, four regions of the state would be eligible for a gambling facility under Cuomo’s plan: western New York, the Southern Tier, the Capital Region and the Catskills.
Cuomo’s plan would need the Legislature’s approval and would have to be OK’d in a public referendum.
The availability of western New York, however, is under dispute. The Seneca Indian Nation has exclusive casino rights west of Route 14, but has withheld slots revenue from the state while claiming the agreement was violated by three racinos in their operating zone.
Seneca President Barry Snyder accused Cuomo last week of using “playground bully tactics” to try and settle the dispute. Cuomo suggested last week that the state may let the casino deal with the Senecas expire in 2016, when it’s due for renewal.