Recently Gov. Andrew Cuomo hosted a “wine and beer summit,” and he has been touring the areas covered by the state’s 10 regional economic development councils to gauge their progress.
These activities, plus the successful “yogurt summit,” give Cuomo the opportunity to spotlight those economic development initiatives critical to his strategic vision and job creation efforts.
But in Indian country, people are wondering when the governor will turn his attention to the Native American nations.
Cuomo says the economic forums are used to assess his government: “What are we doing that helps? What are we doing that hurts? What could we do better? What do you need?”
An honest assessment should compel Cuomo to convene an Indian Nations economic summit.
So far the Cuomo administration has failed to engage with Native Americans, who are culturally, historically and economically bound to New York.
Although billed as “NY Works for MWBEs,” it does not appear that Native American firms were invited to participate in the recent MWBE forum in Albany. Perhaps Indians need not apply.
Treating New York’s first people as less than second-class citizens when it comes to our state being “open for business” is counterproductive.
The Oneida Indian Nation recently joined a partnership saving jobs at the Syracuse-based Hofmann’s Sausage Company by becoming the business’ lead investor, in a move that will possibly enable the firm to expand nationally. And lest we forget, over 200 years ago a partnership between the Oneidas and the colonists against the British helped save the American Revolution.
It’s not enough that mediation efforts are under way to resolve the casino revenue dispute between the Seneca Nation and the Cuomo administration. Little else is being done to resolve other issues that prevent Indians and the state from moving beyond the current stalemate.
Twenty years ago, then Gov. Mario Cuomo embraced his leadership role in negotiating gaming compacts with the Indian nations. Since then, the Oneidas have exceeded job creation goals by 150 percent.
Today Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to expand gaming across the state in an effort to jump-start the economy, save the horse-racing industry and increase state revenues. (After all, as a Democrat, he can’t keep cutting services and expect to survive politically.)
The Seneca tribal government has refused to remit $460 million in gambling profits to New York State and the cities of Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo because of three racinos in Western New York that the Senecas say have violated their exclusive rights to gambling in the region.
The Turning Stone Casino, operated by the Oneidas, has spent $2 billion with outside vendors since opening nearly two decades ago. Last year they did $294 million in business with outside suppliers.
Yet offshore gaming companies seemingly receive preferential treatment and access as New York races toward an unprecedented expansion of gambling.
David Cay Johnston, a noted gaming expert, questions why “any politician trying to avoid tax increases would consider a casino operator whose profits will go to Malaysia instead of staying in state.”
New York’s Indian gaming corporations will not take their profits offshore.
Indian gaming has alleviated some poverty among Native Americans, but it is not a cure-all. Nor will the expansion of gaming be a cure-all for the rest of New York. The economies of both the Indian Nations and New York State require diversification.
Indians and upstate residents welcome Cuomo’s involvement in securing the economic well-being of Central and Western New York.
Beyond scheduling an Indian Nations summit this fall, as a commitment to meeting their needs, Cuomo should fulfill former Gov. Paterson’s pledge to elevate Native American affairs to a cabinet level post.
It’s critical that major job creators and investors like the Oneidas be respected and recognized as assets, not treated like nuisances.
As our chief executive, Gov. Cuomo needs to step up by bringing the Oneidas and the other nations into the conversation.
By failing to do this, he risks the state’s economic future.
If Cuomo truly believes a rising tide lifts all boats, he should welcome the Oneidas and the other Indian nations into our commercial waters. Holding a summit with New York’s Native people will generate goodwill here and in indigenous communities across the globe.
For someone with Cuomo’s reputed ambition, that ought to resonate.
Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin represented the Bronx for eight years.