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Cuomo: It's 'very, very important' that Senecas restart casino payments

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came to Buffalo on Friday bearing gifts for elementary students – but no reassurances for three cities waiting for casino revenue to start flowing again.

The Seneca Nation of Indians used to pay $110 million annually to the state, with a portion passed along to the cities that host the nation's casinos: Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca.

The Senecas say their compact with the state allowed them to stop making the payments after 2016. The state disagrees and the matter is in arbitration.

"The municipalities, I believe, should be prudent and wait for the decision of the arbitrator and wait for the situation to be settled before they count on money. Don't count your chickens before they're hatched," the governor told reporters following a Friday morning visit to the Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet P.S. 59 Annex, where he and other elected officials passed out donated toys to students.

During the same news conference, Cuomo also repeated his support for a number of his priorities: limits on state legislators' outside income; legalizing recreational marijuana; and the Child Victims Act, which extends the window of time for victims of sexual abuse to file lawsuits against their alleged perpetrators.

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Casino revenue: Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca have lost about $23 million in revenue each year after the Senecas stopped making their payments to the state.

The Senecas' 2002 compact with New York required the nation to pay the state 25 percent of their slot machine profits from their three casinos in the region, with the three cities receiving a portion of that revenue. The Senecas and state have been in a standoff since the payments stopped.

Cuomo promised Niagara Falls a $12.3 million bailout, as an advance on the resumption of the payments, and Salamanca officials say the governor has promised a similar reimbursement if the Senecas aren't ordered to start making the payments again. An arbitration panel met earlier this month in New York City, although it's not known when a decision will come.

Asked if he is optimistic the Senecas will restart the payments anytime soon, Cuomo said the standoff is in the hands of the arbitration panel.

"It is very, very important that the Senecas restart their payments. Local governments are depending on that. That is the essence of the bargain that we reached initially," the governor said.

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Legislators' income: Cuomo reiterated that he believes limits are necessary because members of the Assembly and Senate have had conflicts of interest between their official duties and their business interests.

A state commission that recommended large pay raises for legislators drew their ire when it included restrictions on stipends paid to many lawmakers as well as limits – or outright bans – on income from legal practices, insurance agencies, accounting firms and other industries.

A conservative group has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the commission's recommendations, which take effect Jan. 1 unless legislators veto the measure before then.

Cuomo on Friday said Senate Republicans, or Assembly Democrats for that matter, are welcome to return to Albany to vote against the commission's recommendations. He said he believes strongly in a ban on outside income, but legislators who disagree should take a formal stand against the measures instead of just complaining about them.

"I think the legislators should then step forward and look in the camera and say, 'My name is Joe Smith and here is my position,' " Cuomo said.

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Legalized marijuana: The governor was a reluctant supporter of medical marijuana. But in a Monday speech highlighting his 2019 legislative priorities, he said he wanted to legalize recreational marijuana for adults "once and for all."

Cuomo told reporters in Buffalo that he comes at the issue from a law enforcement perspective – as a former assistant district attorney and state attorney general – so he wants to ensure public safety concerns are addressed.

But he said, practically speaking, the state needs to have a law on recreational marijuana that is in line with those of Massachusetts and New Jersey, because otherwise New Yorkers simply will cross the border to buy the drug.

Yet to be answered are the questions such as taxes, how many shops will be licensed to sell the drug, how much each customer can purchase at a time and how old buyers will have to be, he said.

Asked specifically how the law would apply to people incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes, Cuomo said legislation will work out those issues.

"I believe the devil is in the details," he said.

Child Victims Act: This act has passed the State Assembly in recent years but stalled in the Republican-held Senate.

Because Democrats will take over that body in January, supporters of the legislation are optimistic it will pass now and Cuomo has signaled his support.

New York is among the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to allowing victims of long-ago sexual abuse to sue their alleged perpetrators.

State law now gives victims until their 23rd birthday the chance to bring civil and criminal cases. The Child Victims Act expands that window to age 50 for civil cases and 28 for felony criminal cases.

Cuomo on Friday cited the horrific claims, dating back decades, of Catholic priests and other authority figures abusing children. He said it's important for the court system, and not the Catholic Church or another institution, to resolve these claims for the sake of the victims.

"They should have justice," Cuomo said.

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