With a vote coming soon on whether to expand casino gambling in New York, two small upstate towns are asking a court to throw out the rules that would govern the rollout and a related deal between the state and the Oneida Indians.
The towns of Verona and Vernon in central New York argue in a federal lawsuit for nullification of an agreement this year between the state and the Oneida Indian Nation that would allow the tribe to put up to 25,000 acres of land into trust.
While the lawsuit does not seek to disrupt the Nov. 5 statewide referendum, a victory by the towns would throw a monkey wrench into the state’s plan to regulate casino expansion. And it would invalidate an agreement the two towns argue would devastate them by taking away their ability to tax and regulate a substantial amount of land within their boundaries.
“The people that are in those communities are going to have to make it up by paying higher taxes,” said Town of Vernon Supervisor Myron Thurston, whose town of roughly 1,200 is near the Oneida’s Turning Stone casino. “It’s terribly unfair for the taxpayers of Vernon and Verona, bottom line.”
Voters will consider an amendment to the state constitution that would allow Las Vegas-style casinos on non-Indian land. If approved, rules negotiated between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders would initially allow three upstate casinos.
As Cuomo tried to build support for the gambling expansion this year, he struck deals with the three Indian tribes in New York that run casinos — effectively sidelining potential opponents of the referendum.
Under the Oneida deal, the tribe is assured that no competing casino can be located in a 10-county swath of land in the middle of the state and they agreed to give the state 25 percent of the Turning Stone casino’s net revenue from slots, a portion of which would go to Oneida and Madison counties. The Oneidas agreed to place no more than 25,000 acres of land into trust as a way of settling longstanding land claims.
Thurston said about 8 percent of Vernon’s land is involved. The towns’ lawsuit, which names the state along with Madison and Oneida counties, claims the government exceeded its authority by requiring the Oneidas to support the casino referendum as part of the agreement.
“The governor has given away sovereignty over all this land in central New York in exchange for getting what he wants on a constitutional amendment,” said Cornelius Murray, a lawyer for the towns. “He’s just selling these towns down the drain.”
The lawsuit also seeks to overturn the law that spells how casino expansion would proceed, arguing that the governor and legislature prematurely set regulations on gambling that is not legal yet. Murray said the rules could be approved if voters OK the referendum.
Page 2 of 2 - Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said the lawsuit’s allegations “have no basis in reality.”
“The agreement is sound, has been approved by democratic votes in the relevant county legislatures, and settles longstanding issues between the state and local governments and the Oneidas,” Azzopardi said in an email.
The lawsuit was filed in state court but transferred to federal court this month.
In a separate but related case, a federal judge is considering a request by the Cayuga Nation to intervene in another lawsuit involving the state and the Oneidas. If the request is granted, the Cayugas would be able to argue against the Oneida deal brokered by Cuomo, which they claim infringes on their federal rights. The Cayugas claim part of the exclusive territory granted to the Oneidas in the deal is on their territory.
“They want to have their rights preserved to pursue gaming within their territory,” said Mark Horan, a spokesman for the tribe.