On the Ballot: Building New Casinos in Upstate NY

October 07, 2013 at 1:59 pm

One of six measures on the ballot in November, Proposition 1 would amend the state constitution to allow for expanded casino gambling. If passed, it will allow the legislature to authorize the building of up to seven new casinos, the first four of which will be built in the Catskills, the Southern Tier and near Albany in the next seven years. The remaining three could be built in the New York City area after the initial seven-year period.

“I think if people know the facts, it passes overwhelmingly. But…it’s going to be a sophisticated argument and sophisticated arguments are difficult,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo in a press conference.

If voters believe it’s a choice between gambling or no gambling they’re likely to vote no, said the governor. But non-Indian gambling is already allowed in the state in the form of racinos.

Casey Seiler of NYNow and the Albany Times Union reports that advocates like Hudson Valley State Senator John Bonacic say the expansion of gambling will boost the struggling economies upstate, while its detractors say it is “predatory.”

A Brooklyn attorney, Eric J. Snyder,  filed a lawsuit recently claiming the language describing Proposition 1 is slanted. The ballot item includes this description of the amendment’s legislative intent: “…Promoting Job Growth, Increasing Aid to Schools and Permitting Local Governments to Lower Property Taxes Through Revenues Generated.”  Snyder wants the measure removed from the ballot.

“I actually couldn’t believe it,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It seemed more spin than a roulette wheel. They drafted the language to go beyond what’s in the state constitution. The law says the Board of Elections is empowered to make a common sense explanation for what the amendment is. In this case they go far beyond the amendment and spin it to generate a yes vote.”

But Senator Bonacic disagrees, saying the description is “perfect” the way it is because “…it’s about economic development; it’s about creating jobs upstate.”

According to the latest Siena poll, voters are evenly split on whether or not to allow non-Indian, Las Vegas style casinos to be built in New York, 46 percent to 46 percent. However, when presented with the specific language that includes promoting job growth and increasing aid to schools, 55 percent supported passing the measure and 42 percent did not. But a lot will depend on New York City, where large numbers of voters are expected to turn out to vote in the mayor’s race and may not vote for casinos to be located far upstate.

In an interview with MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman, New York Times reporter Charles Bagli said the prize for casino operators may be the eventual construction of stand-alone casinos in New York City, which won’t be allowed for at least seven years under Proposition 1. Bagli said that the current racino at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens is so successful that it’s “printing money,” and that downstate racinos are not opposing Proposition 1 because it will allow them to compete for the new casinos when they’re eventually allowed in the area.

Bagli called the ballot measure the “creeping incrementalism” of gambling. “It used to only be in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and then we had the lottery, then we had racetrack gambling…We’ve sort of gone from destination gambling to convenience gambling.”

Unlike Atlantic City casinos, or newer ones in Pennsylvania, Bagli said that if approved, Proposition 1 will mean smaller investments by gaming companies. “You’re going to have, I think, four or five groups contending to build casinos [upstate],” he said. “They won’t be the mega casinos we were talking about in the beginning, you know, a billion dollar investment. They’ll be much less than that.”