Underlying Indian tax debate is possibility of violence

By JOEL STASHENKO Associated Press Writer

The possibility of violence lies just below the surface of the debate over collecting cigarette taxes from Indian merchants.

Gov. George Pataki acknowledged as much when he asked the Legislature last month to give him a year's delay on when the state starts to collect the taxes. The state is supposed to start collections March 1, already three months later than lawmakers intended.

Pataki said he is seeking "cooperation rather than confrontation" with various tribal leaders on issues including collecting taxes from Indian sales to non-Indians, land claims by tribes and the establishment of new Indian casinos. Pataki wouldn't say more, except that the discussions are "very, very difficult."

Attempts by the state to collect taxes on cigarette and gasoline sales by Indian businessmen, in 1992 and 1997, triggered violence both times.

Seneca Indians blocked the state Thruway and the Southern Tier Expressway with burning cars, tires and other debris. Both times, the state ended up abandoning its efforts.

The Senecas, the most vocal of the state's Indian nations on the tax issue, are resisting the collections again.

But they're taking a different approach this time. They are using a radio, television and print media blitz to criticize the tax collection plan as a violation of an 1842 treaty between the Senecas and the state. The thrust of the ads is that the state would be the lawbreaker if it tries to collect the taxes.

Through that ad campaign and their lobbyists, the Senecas are merely using the same tools that pro-tax collection groups like the state Association of Convenience Stores have long employed to try to get their way in Albany, said Seneca Tribal Councilor Arthur Sugar Montour.

The Senecas have those resources this time around in large part because of revenue generated by the casino they opened last year in Niagara Falls. Seneca businessmen are also contributing to the campaign, according to Montour.

The tribe's opponents are just jealous, Montour said.

"They've never had an Indian nation have close to the amount of dollars that we have available for lobbying," he said.

It is "absolutely untrue" that the Senecas have threatened violence if there is a renewed push to collect the taxes, Montour said.

"The suggestion of violent tactics has only been raised by the media and other parties," said Rickey L. Armstrong Sr., president of the Seneca Indian Nation.

Still, former Seneca President Duane James Ray said in December he could not guarantee that violence would not occur.

"I don't know, it happened before," Ray said.

Convenience store owners, anti-smoking advocates and others who favor the tax collections are growing increasingly frustrated by Pataki's delays.

Bill Magee, a Democratic state assemblyman from Madison County, said it is "absolutely asinine" for the Republican governor to put off collection of the taxes.

Dan Finkle, a leader in the merchant coalition "Fair Application of Cigarette Taxes," contended that Indians are using the not-so-veiled threat of violence as a bargaining tool in negotiations with the state.

"Where's the threat of confrontation coming from?" asked Finkle, a Johnstown distributor. "It's coming from those who talk about patriotism one minute and the next minute thumb their noses at the law. How do you cooperate with someone whose main bargaining tool is confrontation?"

Association of Convenience Stores President Jim Calvin mockingly referred to the Pataki administration "forging a new model of governing in New York state."

"The legislative branch passes a law that makes some people unhappy," he said. "The unhappy people spend several million dollars voicing their unhappiness and the executive branch refuses to enforce that law until it can negotiate softer terms with the unhappy parties."

A coalition of non-Indian businessmen including Calvin's group said it will run its own campaign to educate New Yorkers about the need to collect the taxes. Retailers will post lawn signs, posters and hand out brochures at their stores to tell customers that the sale of tax-free cigarettes hurts all New Yorkers by depriving the state treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues.

"We don't have millions to burn, so we're using our most valuable asset - our high-traffic locations and our contact with thousands of customers each day - to spread the word," Calvin said.


Joel Stashenko is Capitol Editor for The Associated Press in Albany. He can be reached at P.O. Box 7165, Capitol Station, Albany, N.Y., 12224.


Campaign Seeks Tribe Tax Collections

Storeowner group wants state to collect taxes from Native American retailers

(New York) -- Convenience store owners Tuesday said they've scraped together $50,000 to counter a multimillion dollar Seneca Indian advertising campaign against the collection of taxes on goods sold at Native American stores.