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SENECAS, STATE BEGIN TALKS ON OPENING WNY CASINOS

Negotiations have begun between the state and the Seneca Nation that could bring at least two casinos to Western New York, sides in the talks confirmed Thursday.

Tribal representatives and Pataki administration officials met at an undisclosed Buffalo location last week to draw up the guidelines for how the talks will proceed in the coming weeks or months. They did not discuss specific proposals yet, although a senior Pataki aide said those talks could begin next week.

While Seneca officials have remained mum on what they are looking for in a deal with the state, Geraldine Memmo, the Seneca Gaming Committee chairwoman, said Thursday "it is safe to say" any deal reached would likely be for more than one casino.

She added that while there are numerous factors involved in selecting sites for a possible casino, "it is safe to say Buffalo and Niagara Falls" are the leading candidates. But she cautioned that the nation will insist that Seneca members get a first crack at any casino jobs, so that any casinos must be located relatively close to its reservations.

With Casino Niagara sucking tourism dollars across the border into Canada, Gov. Pataki said he would like to reach a deal soon with the Senecas.

"But the important thing is to have something that makes sense in the long term," he told The Buffalo News Thursday.

The sides are negotiating whether to enter into a compact to allow high-stakes casino gambling within the Senecas' aboriginal territory, which stretches from the Genesee River through Western New York and into Ohio.

Speculation has run the gamut over what the two sides might want out of any casino deal. Pataki has said the state must share in the revenues from an Indian-owned casino, a proposal the Senecas oppose.

There are also bitter, unresolved land-claim issues involving the Senecas. Non-Indian retail interests would also like the talks to involve some resolution of the sticky issue involving sales taxes on reservation sales of tobacco and gasoline products.

But Ms. Memmo, one of five Senecas involved in last week's closed door talks, said her negotiating group has been empowered by tribal leaders to discuss only casino issues.

For Pataki, the issue has political as well as economic ramifications. The governor has proclaimed to pro-gambling groups in Western New York that the region should be allowed to open up competition to the booming casino across Niagara Falls in Ontario.

Efforts, however, failed over the summer in the Legislature to begin the process of amending the constitution to allow casinos in several economically depressed areas, including Niagara Falls and Buffalo.

That has left the Seneca deal as Pataki's only chance to bring casino gambling to Western New York. But observers say Pataki has to walk gingerly in dealing with an issue as volatile as casino gambling, which past polls have shown is not even wanted by the majority of New Yorkers across the state.

Those involved in the gambling issue in Albany theorize that Pataki will not want to cut any deals with the Senecas before Election Day; they believe the governor does not want to do anything that could be perceived as controversial as he campaigns with his poll numbers running comfortably high.

Asked about the prospect of reaching a deal with the Senecas, Bradford Race, the governor's top aide, said: "It's way too early to tell. These are complex issues."

He said the sides are not at the stage where any specific proposals have even been put on the table.

If a deal is made, members of the Seneca Nation would still have to approve it in a referendum. The U.S. Department of Interior would also have to approve any compact. And state legislative leaders insist they must have a role in any compact with the Senecas.

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