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Settling an old dispute

Tuesday, May 28, 2013 - Updated: 3:09 PM

The ground-breaking agreement reached by the Cuomo administration and the Oneida Nation of Indians resolving long-standing disputes is a heartening development that should be a turning point in relations between the state and Oneidas as well as counties that border the nation lands.

For too long, relations with the Oneidas and other Native Americans have been marked by confrontation and hostility between them and their neighbors over treaty violations, land claims and tribal sovereignty, particularly as it relates to taxing cigarettes sold to non-Indians. The long-running disputes have stirred resentment and anger on both sides of what have been intractable issues. However, a comprehensive solution reached during intense negotiations over a two-week period promises to end the bickering.

The agreement negotiated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo presents an opportunity to end the decades of litigation over Oneida Nation claims to 300,000 acres of land in central New York. Although a federal judge rejected most of the tribe's land claim two years ago, Madison and Oneida counties continued their litigation backed by the state. Now, they will drop their lawsuits, in exchange for the Oneidas agreeing to cap their claim at 25,000 acres, which will be put into trust held by the federal Interior Department.

The two counties, though, will reap the benefits from millions of dollars in annual payments under a casino revenue sharing plan with the state plus the legal fees they will save. The Oneidas will pay the state 25 percent of its net slot revenue, with the state sharing its anticipated $50 million a year with the two counties. Oneida will receive $12.5 million a year and Madison $3.5 million along with one-time payments to settle their property tax claims against the Oneidas.

With a referendum looming on state-sponsored casinos, the Oneidas gain protection from future competition with the exclusive right to operate a casino in a 10-county region that includes Oswego and Lewis counties.

If approved, the deal resolves the rancorous argument over untaxed cigarette sales to non-Indians trying to avoid the state's $4.35 per pack sales tax plus local taxes, which puts non-Indian merchants at a disadvantage and loss of revenue to the state. Native Americans have fiercely resisted state attempts to force them to collect the taxes as a violation of their sovereignty.

The Oneidas agreed to a nation sales tax on cigarettes, gas and other sales to non-Indians to bring prices closer to parity with non-Indian retailers. The tribe will keep the additional revenue provided it is used for the same programs as the state and counties use their tax revenue. The higher prices should discourage some smokers from patronizing reservation retailers.

The deal should receive necessary approvals by the Legislature, the tribe and the federal government. Instead of endless confrontation over historic wrongs, it is a sensible solution based on trust and compromise that can be the foundation for amicable relations between the Indians and their neighbors.

-- The Watertown Daily Times


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