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Sep 14, 2011 11:10 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Tribe's Latest Hurdle To Casino: Legalized Gambling Proposal

Sep 14, 2011 12:40 PM

The Shinnecock Indian Nation’s effort to secure permission to operate a potentially lucrative casino has cleared a number of mountainous hurdles. But it has several more to clear before its initial proposal—for a casino at the Belmont Park horse racetrack in Nassau County—can become reality.

The latest threat to the casino effort, or to its economic potential, might come from an unusual quadrant: those who want to see gaming more widely legalized.

A number of state officials, primarily legislators and state senators from economically struggling resort areas in the Catskills region, have suggested that New York should legalize gambling in portions of the state, like New Jersey did for Atlantic City in 1976. That could allow private interests beyond Native American tribes to build and operate casinos.

The proposal is not a new one, having been promoted by gaming advocates for decades. But in light of the state’s financial struggles and budget-cutting efforts amid the national economic and employment crisis, it’s getting a new look, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed willingness to consider the proposal as a potential economic stimulus for depressed areas, and as a tax revenue source for the state.

The state currently allows betting on only horse racing, as well as some video poker, keno and lottery games that have recently been allowed into racing facilities like the Yonkers Raceway and Aqueduct. Only Native American tribes have thus far been allowed to operate full-fledged casinos with high-stakes table games like roulette and craps and other traditional casino attractions like slot machines. Along with recognition from the federal Department of the Interior, a tribe must reach a contract with the state, negotiated by the governor’s office and approved by the State Legislature, detailing what gaming will be allowed and allocating tax payments to the state.

The push for an expansion of legal gambling for non-Native American operators beyond the limited current options has been bolstered by a well-funded lobbying effort in the state by representatives of Genting Group, the mammoth Malaysian resort and casino corporation that won the bid to develop the gaming facilities at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.

The legalization of gaming at facilities like Aqueduct and the Empire City casino at Yonkers Raceway and potentially at upstate resorts would likely dilute the pool of gaming customers by creating multiple new destinations for those seeking to gamble, posing a threat to the potential windfall of high-stakes casinos operated solely by the Shinnecocks and other Native American tribes.

The Shinnecock Casino proposed at Belmont, or possibly elsewhere on Long Island, would be the closest such facilities to New York City, and a feasibility study conducted by the tribe in 2002 showed that a gaming facility anywhere on Long Island could be expected to be one of the most lucrative casinos in the country within 10 years of its opening.

There has been no official gaming legalization proposal at the state level, and many state legislators could be expected to vociferously oppose such a measure.

“It is on the table, but it is still unclear whether it has the support to move forward,” State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said. “The governor has expressed interest, and you have certain legislators in the state who want to see not just Indian gaming but other possibilities, like New Jersey.”

Mr. Thiele said that he thinks any such proposal to legalize gaming beyond the federally regulated Native American casinos would require an amendment to the State Constitution, which would have to be approved by a super-majority of two consecutively elected legislatures, a year apart. If such were the protocol followed, it would be at least 2013 before a proposal could be enacted. Mr. Thiele said he would vigorously oppose any proposal if it were to come up for consideration by the legislature.

“I don’t like casino gaming, period, but it certainly is not something that should be expanded beyond what the tribes are doing,” he added. “The Shinnecocks are looking at Belmont as their best chance, and I would assist them in what they want to do there. They should not lose their place in line, so to speak—especially to private entities.”

Shinnecock Tribal Trustees Chairman Randy King said that the tribe has not discussed internally the potential of non-Indian gaming interfering with their plans at Belmont and elsewhere. He said other tribes from upstate have opposed the consideration of non-Indian gaming, on the basis that it would violate the contracts they signed with the state to operate their casinos.

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