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State Legislature reaches tentative deal on expanding casino gambling

ALBANY – Lawmakers say they have struck a tentative deal to expand the number of Las Vegas-style casinos in New York, letting four new gambling halls operate upstate but honoring a recent deal with the Seneca Nation to keep any new casinos from locating in Western New York.

Key lawmakers say they expect a bill to be ready today that would also allow gambling facilities offering only video lottery terminals – slot-like devices such as those at the Hamburg racetrack – into three upstate regions as well as Long Island, if the casino referendum officials hope to present to voters is defeated.

“It’s the closest we’ve been to having a meeting of the minds to move forward. I think there’s a commitment to move forward in both houses,” said Sen. John Bonacic, a Catskills Republican who heads the Senate’s Racing and Wagering Committee.

Still on the table but getting close is a plan to let businesses expand operations on state and private college campuses without paying any state taxes – an idea that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says will be a major benefit to upstate but that critics call a corporate giveaway that even includes no income tax payments by an expanding firm’s employees.

The casino deal – yet to be announced by Cuomo and legislative leaders and subject to possible change – would give all counties in Western New York a share of the casino revenue-sharing proceeds from the Seneca Nation’s gambling halls in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca. Currently, only those three localities get the vast majority of the local revenue-sharing money under the terms of a 2002 compact between the state and tribe.

The plan calls for voters statewide to be asked to approve up to seven new casinos, which, like the Indian facilities, could offer real slot machines and table games such as poker.

A separate “enabling bill” with specifics for the plan calls for casinos to pay a tax rate of 40 percent, up from 25 percent that Cuomo proposed. If a casino locates in a region that is home to a track-based “racino,” that track facility would pay a lower share than the current average state tax rate of about 67 percent.

The enabling bill only locates the first of four casinos, and all would have to be in one of three upstate regions: the Southern Tier near Binghamton, the Albany area and the Hudson Valley, including the Catskills. Bonacic said he believes two of the four will end up in the Catskills, a region that was first approved for three Indian casinos, which were never built, a decade ago.

Seneca President Barry Snyder Sr. last week told The Buffalo News he hopes the Senecas could try to expand their casino empire to the Catskills.

Other issues are stalled as the legislative session winds down, including Cuomo’s plan to create a taxpayer-funded campaign financing system for statewide and legislative candidates.

It would have a price tag of $40 million to $200 million, depending on which side is talking.

Fewer and fewer lawmakers believe Cuomo will be successful in his attempt to protect – or expand, as critics say – abortion access in New York if the federal abortion laws are struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A group of four independent Democrats, who control the Senate in a coalition arrangement with Republicans, is pressing for passage of nine other women’s rights and advocacy measures, but Cuomo and some women’s groups say they don’t want the package approved unless the abortion provisions are included.

“It would be a shame,” Senate co-leader Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat, said, if nine of the 10 didn’t happen because of the abortion issue.

Lawmakers say they expect the end of the 2013 session, scheduled for Thursday, to drag over into Friday.

Still being worked on is Cuomo’s new plan to let companies locate on college campuses without paying any taxes, including personal income taxes by the workers they employ.

That plan seems all but certain to pass, but the sides are still negotiating how to make more colleges in New York City, now with a shortage of campus property, eligible by expanding their boundaries to help draw businesses to the tax-free zones.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have introduced a last-minute bill to give financial help to three racetrack-based casinos in Hamburg, Batavia and near Rochester. The facilities were at the heart of the Seneca Nation’s dispute with the state that was settled by Cuomo and Snyder last week.

The tribe stopped $600 million in payments to the state alleging, in part, a contract breach when Albany let the three tracks market themselves as “casinos” and offer real slot machines instead of video lottery terminals. The new bill includes lower tax rates for the track casinos and state reimbursement of the cost of “rebranding” themselves in line with the terms of the Cuomo and Snyder deal.