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St. Lawrence County legislators glad to see casinos in the forefront

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CANTON - Comments by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo about siting prospective casinos pleased St. Lawrence County lawmakers who feel the county has been wronged in the dispute over the state-tribal gaming compact.

“It’s nice to see the governor taking an active part in seeing that the compact is held up,” said Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, chairman of the Board of Legislators.

Gov. Cuomo said Thursday that Native American casinos in the state could see competition from state-sponsored gaming operations if lingering disputes are not settled soon.

State legislators and Gov. Cuomo are considering legislation and a public referendum that would allow non-Native American casinos. Gov. Cuomo has divided the state into six regions for prospective casinos. Three of the regions already have Native American casinos. The governor has said that casinos would not be allowed in locations surrounding Native American casinos if the tribes that operate them were in good standing with the state.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, which operates the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort, stopped payments on a compact with the state in 2010, claiming their exclusivity had been breached by a gaming operation on the Ganienkeh reservation near Plattsburgh.

As a result, more than $12 million is owed to St. Lawrence and Franklin counties and the towns of Massena, Brasher, Bombay and Fort Covington.

“In the end, St. Lawrence County has suffered,” said Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, who has been active in pursuing a casino for Ogdensburg. “However it gets resolved, then we can go forward. St. Lawrence County shouldn’t be squeezed. It’s good it’s being discussed.”

St. Regis Mohawks, busy with the grand opening Thursday of a $74 million casino and resort expansion, had no immediate reaction to Gov. Cuomo’s comments.

“We just haven’t had enough time to look at the issue,” tribal spokesman David T. Staddon said.

Exactly what “good standing” means remains unclear.

The Seneca Nation, which operates casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca, has also stopped payment to the state, claiming violations of its exclusivity rights like the Mohawks; but the Oneida Nation, which runs Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Central New York, has no pact that requires revenue sharing or an exclusive territory. Gov. Cuomo suggested they could avoid state competition by settling land claims.

In addition to the state-tribal compact dispute, St. Regis Mohawks have had disputes with the state over land claims and cigarette taxes.

“The wording in ‘good standing,’ what does that mean? I guess it’s a matter of opinion,” Mr. Burns said. “It should be resolved.”

While the governor’s words were encouraging to St. Lawrence legislators, the county is still considering a lawsuit to re

recoup its lost compact money. Legislators recently delayed a decision so that attorneys could conduct a further review.

“All options remain on the table, and we’ll continue to evaluate the situation,” Mr. Putney said.

Gov. Cuomo also pushed the idea of future casinos’ sharing revenues with the counties surrounding them, not necessarily just with the one in which they were located. The concept could make passage of a referendum easier.

It could also mean legislators coalesce around a location rather than vie with each other. While St. Lawrence officials have pushed for a casino in Ogdensburg, a racino — a harness racetrack with a casino — has been proposed for Alexandria Bay.

Agreement on a location and revenue sharing would depend on the details, Mr. Burns said.

“If we’re talking an equal share, I’m not sure that’s fair to the county it’s located in,” he said. “I’m OK with Ogdensburg getting a casino. I think it’s fair to say we could share some of the revenue with our neighboring counties. I’m not completely opposed.”

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