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Legalizing casinos

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Legislature have to put an end to the uncertainty surrounding a referendum to legalize non-Indian casinos in the state.

The Legislature last year approved a resolution amending the state constitution to allow up to seven Las Vegas-style casinos in the state, but it still has to vote a second time before sending the proposal to voters for approval. In the back and forth of negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders, the timing of the vote has become a distracting issue.

A referendum had been anticipated in the fall elections, but Gov. Cuomo and lawmakers cast doubt on that given the nature of the fall elections. They do not include statewide races to draw voters to the polls, especially upstate where the governor’s plan calls for the first three casinos to be built. However, a poor upstate voter turnout could jeopardize passage given the opposition that might come from New York City, which would be excluded from hosting a casino for at least five years under the governor’s proposal.

As noted in a recent Times editorial the governor had indicated a willingness to delay the vote until 2014, but that has changed. Information made available to the Times by the governor’s press office subsequent to the editorial said he will push for a referendum this year.

The governor’s plan, though, goes beyond legalizing gambling with an inducement for Indian tribes to resolve other outstanding issues with the state. Gov. Cuomo’s proposal divides the state into six regions eligible for a prospective casino. However, the governor would not allow state-sponsored gambling in three regions that have Indian casinos as long as the tribe is in “good standing” with the state. If not, state-sponsored casinos would be allowed to compete in the region.

That could affect the Seneca Nation, which operates casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca, and the St. Regis Mohawks, who operate the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort and just opened a $74 million expansion. Both tribes have exclusivity agreements, but they have withheld nearly $559 million in payments to the state, claiming Albany has broken their compacts by permitting other casinos in their region.

The Oneida Indian Nation’s compact does not require revenue sharing with the state, but the Oneidas and the St. Regis Mohawks have long-standing land claims. Gov. Cuomo has suggested that the land claims, disputed casino revenue and future casino locations become part of a comprehensive solution.

The tribes and the state have to come to some accommodation. The time has come to resolve these issues and put them behind us. Gov. Cuomo is offering a way forward. But first the Legislature has to approve a November referendum. There is no point in delaying a vote another year. Schedule the vote and let the debate begin.

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