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Pataki needs to step in on tax Seneca cigarette law cannot be ignored; discussions needed

There is a pressing need for a unified policy dealing with Indian nations, a point driven home recently when the major supplier of cigarettes to Seneca Nation smoke shops stopped shipments because the state threatened to enforce a ban.

Gov. George E. Pataki should quickly take charge. No one wants to see a repeat of the 1997 fights that tied up the Thruway and injured State Police when Senecas demonstrated -- as they did peacefully last week -- against possible taxation.

But the current issue is about collecting taxes from non-Indians. A new law went into effect March 1 requiring the state to collect taxes on cigarettes sold by Indians to non-Indians by getting the tax from wholesalers before they ship products to retailers. Like any law, it demands enforcement.

Pataki, however, chose not to enforce it while trying to negotiate a one-year delay in implementation; he leaves office Dec. 31. Such statements sound very much like "passing the buck" by a governor whose higher aspirations do not include a showdown with Indian nations. Enter gubernatorial candidate and state Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer. He said wholesalers risked possible criminal prosecution if they continued sales. Milhem Attea & Bros., a Buffalo company that almost exclusively supplies Indian retailers, first decided it could not risk paying cigarette taxes if prosecutors enforced the law, but late last week it resumed supplies after state Tax Department permission; it also may sue the state to maintain its sales. While this is not direct taxation of Indian nations, the law's effect is significant, if disruptive. Coordinate state and nation action and discussion without necessarily loosening current law.

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