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Senecas, state meet on forging casino deal

ALBANY – Top Seneca Nation and Cuomo administration officials huddled into the night Wednesday in hopes of forging a deal to end a years-long $600 million dispute that could keep the tribe from facing any new casino competition in Western New York.

Seneca Nation President Barry Snyder Sr. joined members of the Senecas’ ruling government council in meetings with legislative representatives during the late afternoon. By evening the talks turned to a closed-door session with senior Cuomo officials.

Snyder, reached by telephone Wednesday night, said he was on his way to catch a plane and would call back; he did not.

Sources say the sides are closing in on a deal to end a bitter dispute that would, if finalized, protect the tribe’s gambling exclusivity rights in Western New York by having Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo drop his threat to place a new, Las Vegas-style casino, possibly in Niagara Falls near the Senecas’ successful downtown gambling palace.

But an administration official said later that any speculation about an imminent deal was unfounded.

The governor recently cut deals with two other tribes to keep new casino competition out of their regions as part of his plan to permit up to seven new casinos in New York State that Cuomo hopes will go before voters statewide this fall.

But any deal with Snyder has to be approved by the Seneca council, and there has been a sharp divide among some members who believe they should not cut a deal with Cuomo; some Senecas believe the tribe will win an ongoing binding arbitration case against the state that will end up protecting its exclusivity deal under a 2002 casino compact with the state and allow it to keep most or all of the $600 million the tribe stopped paying about four years ago to Albany in annual revenue sharing payments from its casinos.

One scenario that lawmakers and other sources posed Wednesday night was that Snyder could present a tentative agreement to Seneca council members in a special session as early as today. If agreed upon, a final deal could be announced with Cuomo this week.

But while some sources were expressing optimism about an imminent deal, they also cautioned that the internal doings of Seneca politics and governing are complex and unpredictable.

Cuomo is trying to make a deal with the Senecas, as he did recently with the Oneida and St. Regis Mohawk tribes, because he and lawmakers are trying to put the finishing touches on a statewide casino development plan before the scheduled end of the 2012 legislative session June 20. If the Seneca agreement comes together, his threat to put in Western New York a full casino, or possibly two facilities offering slot-like devices like those at the Hamburg racetrack, will be taken off the table.

The Senecas want the state to ban three tracks in Western New York that have casino operations from marketing themselves as full-blown casinos and to prevent any new technological advances, such as electronic roulette, from being offered at those sites.

They also want the state to extend the terms of the Senecas’ compact, due to expire in 2016. They have also talked about opening a casino in Monroe County.

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