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TENTATIVE PACT IS REACHED ON CASINO MEASURE

Negotiators have tentatively agreed on a measure permitting three Seneca-owned casinos in Western New York, a deal that could be voted on by the State Legislature as early as today, legislative and lobbying sources said Monday night.

The plan, which officials cautioned could still fall apart, would set aside about 25 percent of the state's revenue from slot machines for local governments in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, as well as the two host county governments.

The state would get an estimated $1 billion by sharing with the Senecas a quarter of total slot machine profits over the next 14 years. This would be worth more than $200 million to local governments in the region, far more than had first been proposed, though still less than many local lawmakers wanted.

The casino measure, which was outlined to lawmakers in closed-door meetings Monday, offers no resolution to the issue of the Seneca's pending land claims involving Grand Island. Some officials sought to link the casino backing with the Senecas agreeing to end the land claim.

The deal also gives a politically influential union certain rights to organize casino employees, though not as sweeping as the labor group had first sought in a bid some Senecas saw as an attack on their tribe's sovereignty.

The Western New York casino measure is part of a broader package, still being negotiated, that also includes authorization for as many as three Indian-owned casinos in the Catskills, slotlike machines for racetracks and entry by New York into a big-jackpot, multistate lottery game known as Powerball.

In all, the package in a few years could mean more than $1 billion a year in revenue to the state, according to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

"And some people are saying that is very conservative," he added.

If the entire package is approved, it would represent the single biggest expansion of gambling in New York State history and would make casinolike betting available for residents from Long Island to Niagara Falls. Driving the issue now is a frantic bid by officials to raise more money for the state budget in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks without having to raise taxes.

"I don't think we'd be having all these conversations right now," conceded Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, after emerging from the first of two closed-door sessions with Gov. George E. Pataki and Bruno on Monday.

While some anti-gambling forces made a last-ditch effort to slow the talks, pro-casino lawmakers suggested it is too late to stop the march toward more Indian casinos.

"I believe a positive conclusion to the casino issue is imminent," said a cautious but beaming Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, a
Democrat who represents Niagara Falls and its bid to open a Seneca casino there.

"We're close," added Sen. George Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda.

It was unclear how closely linked the Western New York casino deal is to the plan to let racetracks begin offering the slotlike machines, known as video lottery terminals. The racetrack provision changed several times during the day, but by nightfall the package on the table would permit all racetracks in the state to obtain the video devices, pending local approval.

It was uncertain, negotiators said, whether local approval would come from voters in a referendum or by county legislatures. Racetracks, like Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs, would be limited in how many betting devices they could offer and the hours video wagering could take place. Industry officials say the video betting will be worth far more to the state's coffers than any Indian casino deal.

The casino issue was front and center at the Capitol Monday as lawmakers returned for a special session that could drag on for several days.

Besides the gambling package, lawmakers and the Pataki administration were negotiating a plan to spend more money on several key causes -- including the politically popular pork-barrel programs in legislators' home districts -- from this year's budget.

With the economy spiraling downward since Sept. 11, Pataki and lawmakers say there is no means to add extra money for the state's schools, not-for-profit agencies and others seeking to add funds to a budget that was approved by lawmakers in August. Lawmakers had been intent on adding to that slimmed-down budget before Sept. 11.

Now, sources say, the sides are looking at a $500 million package of "reconfigured" spending that would take some money from certain programs and juggle revenue estimates on others to fund more money going to schools, not-for-profit agencies that provide state services like health care, and for economic development programs.

Legislative sources say each house will be given $100 million each for spending on not-for-profit agencies and various pork-barrel initiatives. The remainder, about $300 million, would go to public schools and economic development initiatives. The money would come not, lawmakers insist, from adding new spending, but from taking money, for instance, from programs that are budgeted for in this year's fiscal plan but on which money has not yet been spent.

What remains uncertain, though, is how much money might be available to help solve Buffalo's deficit at City Hall as well as the city's school system. Officials in both parties said Monday they want to get more money for the city, but no one could say for certain that a substantial aid package will be approved in the days or weeks ahead for the city. But it was clear, all sides said, that Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello faces an increasingly daunting task to get the major bailout he is seeking from Albany.

The casino issue has been frozen since last summer, when Pataki made a deal with Seneca President Cyrus Schindler for casinos in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and an undetermined site on one of the two Seneca reservations. Assembly Democrats, looking to extract other, unrelated deals, held up passage of the Seneca bill. Since then, Silver has also insisted on letting the Catskills in on the casino expansion plan.

Silver has long criticized Pataki's Seneca casino deal, saying it only proposed to give 3 percent of the state's slot machine revenues to host governments; the Senecas agreed to give the state 25 percent of the slot machine revenues from its casinos.

"I've advocated for a lot more than 3 percent, and we'll succeed. We'll not do it unless it's in there," Silver said Monday night.

Pataki declined to talk to reporters.

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e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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