No Country For Red Men

In 2011 we have new legislators, a new Cuomo, and the same old fight. Alas, the brief recurring respite Indian Country has between Election Day and Inauguration Day every few years is over, and the fight begins again.

Cuomo, Part Deux, presents the Executive Budget for NYS

Governor Cuomo contributed another brief chapter in dealing with what for centuries has been known as the “Indian Problem.” Frustrated by the rise in the Indian tobacco trade on tribal territories within New York and the state’s inability to collect taxes on this increasingly profitable enterprise, Cuomo took action and attempted to force tax collection on reservation tobacco sales—and ran into a brick wall of defiance.

No, you didn’t miss something in the first 100 days of Andrew Cuomo’s tenure. This was the 1990s under Gov. Cuomo of the Mario persuasion. But the former governor’s son has already taken his first step toward renewing this practice, by including $130 million presumptive tax dollars from taxes on Indian cigarettes in this year’s budget. Never mind the fact he is relying on reports from a department that acknowledges that 70 percent of what would be considered “bootleg” cigarettes—cigarettes purchased outside of, but consumed within, New York State—come from states bordering New York and Canada. The capriciousness of the $130 million estimate is even more suspect considering that “expert” testimony at various hearings over the years have placed the number anywhere between $65 million and $1.6 billion.

No matter how the state arrives at its figures, by inserting any number into the budget Andrew Cuomo has picked up where his father, and several others, left off.

In the waning days of Mario Cuomo’s administration, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the court’s 1994 decision in a case called Milhem Attea & Bros., granting individual states the right to collect taxes on cigarettes sold to non-natives on reservation territory throughout the United States. With the so-called collection authority in place from the highest court in our land, the issue of enforcement was left to the individual states to pursue. This is where it got ugly.

After an unsuccessful attempt to force Indian tobacco retailers to open their books and provide sales figures and tax revenue to New York, the state established a coupon system whereby taxes would be applied at the wholesale level and collected in advance. Trying to coordinate this effort between manufacturers, wholesalers and individual tribal retailers and the violent reaction it stirred in Indian Country—the Seneca Nation in particular—led the governor to institute a policy of forbearance. Forbearance is another way of saying “even though I think I’m right, it’s the next guy’s problem.” The issue was essentially too complex and heated to pursue, so Cuomo punted and passed the buck to the following administration.

CLICK HERE TO READ PRESS COVER STORY ABOUT CIGARETTE TAX DISPUTE BETWEEN U.S. AND INDIAN COUNTRY

Gov. George Pataki took up the fight during his first term in office, and was met with amplified defiance from Seneca that set the new administration back on its heels. Pataki too went “four and out” and punted.

Insert “Gov. Eliot Spitzer” and “Gov. David Paterson” into the paragraph above as they both attempted to traverse this well-worn path with no success. Every governor since Mario Cuomo, once learning the nuance of policy as it relates to tribal land and sovereign rights, winds up hiding behind the policy of forbearance. Last year state Sens. Craig Johnson (gone), Carl Kruger (indicted), Pedro Espada (indicted), and Assembs. Richard Brodsky (gone) and Michael Benjamin (gone) shook their fists at hearings and press conferences urging Paterson to step up to the plate and take on New York’s tribes.

But that was so 2010. In 2011 we have new legislators, a new Cuomo, and the same old fight. Alas, the brief recurring respite Indian Country has between Election Day and Inauguration Day every few years is over, and the fight begins again. My father is fond of the phrase “every 100 years, all new people.” The more you think about that phrase the more freeing, or paralyzing, it is. For Indians it’s more like “every 10 years, all new politicians.”

I bring this up now because Andrew Cuomo is by all accounts an extremely bright guy with a long memory; a bright guy who undoubtedly understands the intricate and delicate relationship with tribal nations in New York better than any governor that came before him, his father included. He has the benefit of an institutional knowledge his father had to acquire on the job and the added bonus of witnessing each successive governor fail with respect to imposing taxes on cigarettes sold on reservation land.

Given these circumstances, quietly inserting $130 million in tax dollars is more than a warning shot. It marks the beginning of yet another skirmish in a long, tiresome and 400-year war against the indigenous people of this nation.

Political Football

Republicans do the Hora during the election

The Republicans are inching closer to control of the New York State Senate. This is less of an ideological victory of sorts than it is an interesting development in the ongoing power-play of regional interests. At stake are redistricting and determining the identity of the “third man” in the room in Albany. For Long Islanders, it’s about money.

The political and corporate leadership of the Island have long opined over our funding imbalance. In short, we send more money to Albany than we receive. Unfunded mandates, the support of New York City schools and the staggering burden of Medicaid forces local municipalities to install punitive tax measures on businesses and residents. This, of course, is an affront to our sense of fair play. That said, no one would switch places with any community north of the Tappan Zee.

The state as a whole continues to flounder on the eve of another Cuomo administration. And while everyone expects Gov. Cuomo of the Andrew persuasion to be hard-charging, there appears to be little for him to charge at. Layoffs of government workers are a given and public contracts will be broken and battled over in court. Closer to home on the tiny island next door, the astounding resurgence of the financial industry in New York City isn’t enough to cover looming budget gaps in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s out-year forecasts. Identifying new sources of revenue or trying to figure out where budgets are going to be slashed is anyone’s guess. But insiders are hardly in the prognosticating mood. Instead, everyone is keeping their heads down so as not to be noticed by the governor-elect, in the hopes that avoidance equals survival in what will likely be a bloody term.

Cuomo, who strode to Election Day on the “compared to the last two guys and the cast of lunatics I’m running against you have no choice but to pick me” campaign, has remained radio silent on his plans for straightening out our fiscal woes. His non-endorsement of fellow Democrat, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, speaks volumes about his intention to govern in a tight-fisted manner. This pales in comparison to the copious amount of ink spent trying to predict whether Cuomo will bury the hatchet with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in the back room or in the back of his head. Either way, front row seats are cheap as we fast approach the Albany cage match of the new millennium.

All of this brings us back to the issue of money and whether Long Island will hold onto its share or part with more of it. The reality is we simply cannot afford to be the state’s piggy bank any longer. Nassau County is teetering on the brink of disaster, and the back-channel chatter of insolvency is getting louder. Even Suffolk County, which has enjoyed the benefit of a more equitable property-tax assessment system as well as having the most frugal county executive in its history, is showing signs of economic stress. 

The great hope is that fate has intervened in the form of the reconstituted Republican delegation from Long Island. With Senators Brian Foley and (likely) Craig Johnson both falling on the “MTA commuter tax” sword, the scales may have positively tipped in the Island’s favor. While I know little about Foley’s successor, Lee Zeldin, I have had the opportunity to get to know Jack Martins, who finally appears to be close to solidifying Johnson’s ouster in a hotly contested bid now a month past the November elections. Martins has been an astute and effective mayor in Mineola where he has carved out a solid niche as a forward-thinking executive. Whether these skills are applicable in a legislative role in Albany remains to be seen. But history has shown that when the LI delegation speaks with one voice (and Republicans rarely vary from the provided script) it is a juggernaut.

Again, this has little if anything to do with ideology—the Long Island delegation could all be from the Rent is 2 Damn High party for all I care—but it has everything to do with strength in numbers. If Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) is indeed the third man in the room and he has a strong offensive line giving him enough time in the pocket, we stand a better chance of holding our ground while the rest of us figure out how to reinvigorate the local economy before the play clock runs out. Sorry for the hackneyed sports analogy but amidst my normal political ruminations, I’ve got Jets-Patriots on the brain.