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SENECA OK IS FAR FROM A SURE THING

Think the State Legislature and Gov. George E. Pataki settled the issue of Indian gambling casinos in Niagara Falls and Buffalo?

Think again.

As few as 2,000 Seneca Indians will eventually decide whether the nation will allow the two casinos and another gambling hall on the Seneca reservation.

And if the past is any guide, approval is not certain.

Seneca Nation President Cyrus M. Schindler, still chafing over five months of delays by Assembly Democrats, must now turn his attention to overcoming the opposition of reservation gambling foes led by Susan M. Abrams.

She's just as opposed to Seneca involvement in casino gambling now as she was in 1992, when she gathered the opposition against gambling.

"If the state wants casinos so much," said Abrams, "why doesn't it change its own constitution and have its own casinos?

"Instead," she said, "New York is violating its constitution by allowing the Senecas to have slot machines so that Pataki can bail out New York on the backs of the Senecas."

Abrams is already planning the opposition campaign and setting up a Web site to counter what she calls the propaganda put out by pro-gambling forces.

Schindler said there are 4,500 eligible voters on the Seneca voting rolls, with more than half of them living off reservation lands.

But when Schindler was elected president in November 2000, fewer than half of those eligible to vote -- slightly more than 2,000 Senecas -- cast their votes.

Most of those voters lived on the nation's two reservations.

The casino vote, however, could draw many of the off-reservation Senecas to cast ballots at either the Cattaraugus or Allegany reservation.

Add to that the element of vote buying, a practice that has been part of many Seneca elections in the past.

A referendum date will not be set until the tribal council has approved the compact reached with the state, Schindler said.

"This will take some time," he said. "We are talking about an agreement of more than 80 pages that we will have to go through line by line to be sure the state doesn't sneak something in that we are not aware of. Also, there are some areas that we are aware of that we would like to change."

Schindler would not get into details, but he did say that language allowing "unions in the casinos is a sore point for many of our people."

He said once Seneca leaders finish their review and reach a final compact agreement with the state, they will schedule the referendum. If that passes, the deal has to be approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Schindler tempered his enthusiasm over the news that state lawmakers Thursday had approved the gambling with the lengthy delays.

"It was about time," said Schindler. "I will celebrate when I see the ribbon being cut in front of a casino."

Schindler was equally pragmatic about news of Senate Republicans late Wednesday pushing through first passage of two constitutional amendments to legalize non-Indian casinos in several areas of the state.

"We will worry about that if and when it ever happens," he said. "The compact agreement stipulates that we have an exclusive franchise for slots, and if the state breaches this exclusivity, we don't have to share any of the income from our casinos with New York State."

If everything goes smoothly, the earliest the Senecas could choose partners experienced in developing and managing casinos in Buffalo and Niagara Falls would probably be sometime in the spring, according to Richard Jemison, a tribal councilor and casino negotiator.

Meanwhile, Schindler said the nation will continue with expansion of high-stakes bingo -- called Class II gaming -- that does not require a compact with the state. And it will continue a search for additional bingo sites that could include Grand Island.

The president did not have the most recent revenue figures from the 300 electronic gaming machines moved into Seneca bingo halls but noted, "They are doing very well."

A few weeks ago, Arnold Cooper, the nation's treasurer, reported the machines netted the Senecas almost $2 million in their first 100 days.

Abrams has no intention of stopping the opposition while Seneca leaders go through the approval process.

She said the opposition Web site, "Senecas Against Casino," will be targeted to non-Senecas.

"For our nation," she said, "we are going to depend on a wide-ranging education program that will begin as soon as a copy of the compact is released to us.

"The sovereignty of our nation is being compromised by the proposed compact that includes unionization of some casino employees and by allowing the nation to be sued by non-Senecas," she said.

"Actually, the referendum might be meaningless," she added. "There is so much at stake with a casino, I m sure there will be a lot of money pouring in here from would-be developers, business people both on and off the reservation, and others with deep pockets to buy pro-casino votes."

Vote buying has long been a part of Seneca elections, despite efforts in recent years to stop the practice. It is legal in the Seneca Nation and has been a practice dating to at least the mid-1800s. A vote has attracted from $10 to more than $200 a piece, according to people on the reservation.

Both Schindler and Jemison argue there will be no vote buying for this election.

"Vote buying happens when there is an election for tribal offices, not in referendums," Jemison said. "When we held a referendum in May 1998 on starting casino negotiations with the state, there were no reports of vote buying."

e-mail: apalazzetti@buffnews.com

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