ALBANY — Seen as cash cows for a cash-starved state government, the Seneca Nation is expanding its latest strategy to block tax collection efforts on its lucrative cigarette operations: The tribe will target, with campaign cash, state politicians who openly oppose the tax-free sales.
The Senecas are launching efforts to help defeat three Senate Republicans whom they call “hostile to the nation’s interests” for pushing collection of what lawmakers say could be as much as $1 billion a year in lost cigarette tax revenues by the Indian retail sales.
The lawmakers, two from upstate and one from Brooklyn, challenged the Seneca representatives at a hearing Tuesday in Manhattan called by the Senate Investigations Committee to examine the Paterson administration’s policy of not collecting the taxes on tobacco products sold by Indian retailers to non-Indians.
In a letter obtained by The Buffalo News to members of the Senecas’ Foreign Relations Committee, J. C. Seneca, the panel’s co-chairman, said the lawmakers — senators Michael Nozzolio, George Winner and Martin Golden — had “expressed tremendous hostility to our treaty rights and to our immunity from state excise taxes being collected in our territories” during Tuesday’s hearing.
Seneca said the committee should add the three lawmakers to a $500,000 political target fund that will dispense campaign cash to challengers in next year’s legislative elections. He said the committee should also look to expand the campaign fund’s kitty to $1 million.
The News reported last week that the Senecas told three Senate Democrats — William Stachowski of Lake View, Craig Johnson of Nassau County and Jeff Klein of the Bronx — during a recent private meeting in Albany that the Indian tribe would be pumping money into the war chests of their opponents because of their positions that the cigarette taxes be collected.
In his letter this week to fellow tribal leaders, Seneca added a bipartisan element to the political target list with the names of Republicans Nozzolio of Seneca Falls, Winner of Elmira and Golden of Brooklyn.
Seneca called Golden “particularly hostile, offensive and disrespectful” during the hearings. Golden, in fact, got into a rare public tussle during the hearing with a fellow Republican, George Maziarz of Newfane, after Maziarz went out of his way to make clear that he supported the Senecas and then criticized Golden for his position. The Senecas, with the Niagara Falls casinos, are major employers in Maziarz’s district.
Maziarz talked of the money the Seneca casinos pump into the state and warned of violence that could occur if the state tries to collect the cigarette taxes. “It’s just not worth it,” he said at the hearing.
The Seneca committee last month adopted a resolution to funnel campaign cash to “any candidate who is supportive of the Nation’s treaty rights” and who plans to challenge any senator on its target list in next year’s legislative elections.
Seneca officials were unavailable for comment Friday evening. Golden and Nozzolio did not return calls for comment.
But Winner said the Senecas are going to have to dig deep because nearly every state legislator, as well as Gov. David A. Paterson, has expressed support — and even voted for laws on the books that are now not being enforced — for the tax collection effort.