By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday he would focus only on three areas of upstate for casinos and stay out of Indian tribes' regions if they reach exclusivity agreements with the state.
Cuomo threatened to open up bidding for the three proposed casinos to the western, northern and central parts of New York if the tribes that operate casinos there don't reach financial settlements with the state. The tribes and the state have been at a stalemate for years.
"We've had these conversations for years. I've had these conversations for weeks. The answer at one point is either yes or no," Cuomo told reporters.
The Seneca Nation of Indians operates three casinos in the Buffalo area and owes the state about $500 million because of a dispute over its gaming rights. The Mohawks run a casino in northern New York and also owe money to the state, Cuomo said. The Oneidas operate the Turning Stone Casino and Resort near Syracuse, and its 20-year-old compact with the state doesn't require it to share any revenue with New York.
Cuomo said he wants a deal with the tribes before the legislative session ends June 20. If so, he would limit the casinos to the other parts of upstate: the Southern Tier, Capital District and the upper Hudson Valley/Catskills.
The Senecas' gaming rights extend through the Rochester area. Cuomo said he has not had discussions about a potential casino in Rochester, and his top aide Howard Glaser said there have not been specific talks about that possibility.
"There have been proposals, but not a direct part of any of our discussions," Glaser said.
The Oneidas said in a statement that they are continuing to have talks with Cuomo's office.
"We respect the governor's comments today on the complexities of the issues, and we are engaged in a constructive dialogue with his administration," Ray Halbritter, the nation's leader, said in a statement.
There was no immediate comment from the Senecas or Mohawks.
Cuomo and state lawmakers are working on a deal to allow up to seven privately owned casinos in the state, with the first three to be located upstate. Cuomo said the specific locations of the three casinos would be decided by a siting panel.
The three casinos would have exclusivity to operate in the state for five years, then the others would be designated -- with at least one to likely be put in New York City. Cuomo wants the Legislature to approve the plan this year, and the issue would then need to be approved by voters on the November ballot.
Cuomo said putting the casinos upstate first would drive tourism to the region. The local host communities would share in the profits from the casinos, and the state would use the additional revenue to increase education aid, Cuomo said.
"The premise of this plan is: Let's use it, because it's one of the few big assets we can bring to upstate New York. But it's driven by the absence of a casino in New York City," Cuomo explained.
Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, said earlier this week that he is lobbying the state to allow Tioga Downs in the Southern Tier to get the gaming rights to have a full-fledged casino. Tioga is one of nine racinos in the state, but they do not have table games. The racinos want to open as full-scaled casinos.
"I see it purely as economic development. I think the Southern Tier needs good news," Libous said.