Albany and Art of Deception: From the Land Where No Means Yes
by David Colavito
Question: When can state government promote responsible policies without leveling with voters?
Answer: It can’t.
Question: Has Governor Cuomo leveled with New Yorkers about his proposal to amend the state constitution to permit casino gaming?
Beyond special interests and hidden agendas, it’s simple. Public policy initiatives designed to mislead the public aren’t responsible, and when they’re promoted, hang on to your wallet, because you can be sure that same public will eventually be picking up the tab.
In his 2012 state of the state address, Governor Cuomo rolled out his economic development plan that featured, among other things, his proposal to amend the New York State constitution to permit casino gaming. He implied that those who question whether we should be in the gaming business are the equivalent of delusional because, as he put it, New York is already in the gaming business. He referred to horse racing and video lottery terminal locations throughout the state as bedrock justification for his assertion. He waxed, perhaps not eloquently, about the benefits casino gaming would bring to the Empire state. And he cited, as common-sense, the need to rethink how our state manages gaming, if it’s to stem losses of potential revenue flowing like water out of New York into neighboring casino-permissive states in what might be thought of as a casino siphon. The Governor came as close to saying as one could without actually saying it: New Yorkers are fools if they don’t get with his program to legalize casino gaming in the Empire State.
And so it was that Mr. Cuomo chose to bury the lead, raising the same tired red flags proponents of similar proposals hope go unnoticed. It was deeply disappointing for people who took seriously the commitments to transparency and disclosure he’d laid claim to throughout much of his political career.
Casino gaming is fiction, because casino gambling isn’t a game. It’s the antithesis of a game, because games aren’t reliant upon participants incurring personal and economic hardships, an immutable aspect of betting against the house. Medical and law enforcement professionals have long acknowledged that gambling disorders are real and incur substantial costs for society, just as substance abuse and tobacco related diseases do, though you’d never know it from Mr. Cuomo. And although federal and state governments have for decades derived substantial revenue through taxation on tobacco and alcohol products, they aren’t in the business of promoting either. But this isn’t about ideological purity; it’s about Mr. Cuomo playing it straight with New York voters, the same ones he needs to ratify changes to the state constitution in order to have his way. So it’s also about what paths he’ll travel to get his way.
Casino gambling epitomizes wagering against the house, where the house’s odds of winning ensure everyone else must eventually lose, and as every casino owner knows, that’s a very different paradigm than Saturday night card games among friends. All this isn’t to suggest everyone entering a casino becomes addicted to gambling, anymore than it’s to suggest everyone consuming alcohol becomes an alcoholic. What it’s saying and not just suggesting is trained professionals tell us gambling disorders are real, and they come with hefty costs to our communities that can greatly exceed benefits. And if this was intended to be a scholarly work it would also cite documentation of the disproportionately high level of casino revenues obtained from people with serious gambling disorders, sick people in need of help not exploitation from state government. It’s a predatory business model, because in a variety of ways it arguably cultivates those disorders to facilitate preying upon those so afflicted. Sound familiar? It should, at least for those of sufficient age to recall the earlier days of lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers, but with one important twist: the government was party to some of those smoking related lawsuits.
So appreciating the first red flag raised by the governor is to appreciate gaming for what it is, his euphemism of choice intended to inoculate voters against making an informed decision.
I wish I could remember who first wrote that denial isn’t just a river in Africa, because appreciating denial is central to understanding another red flag raised by the governor. It isn’t to pick on Mr. Cuomo, because he isn’t the first and may not be the last governor to play the “why should we lose our casino gambling dollars to other states?” card (no pun intended). I vividly recall the clenched-teeth grimace from then Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell when confronted by 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl’s reality check. How dare she point out research findings – as Mr. Rendell’s on-air tantrum that erupted in his pompous outburst “You people are simpletons!” stood to attest. What offense had Ms. Stahl committed to illicit such ire from the ordinarily unflappable Rendell? She asked him about all those additional Pennsylvanians he could expect to develop gambling disorders as a result of his gambling expansion plan, state residents above and beyond those historically traveling beyond the Keystone State in pursuit of gambling opportunities. Man oh man, did that hit the eject button.
So Albany’s red flag of denial can perhaps best be identified by its refusal to acknowledge and cope with, and by extension, communicate to voters, findings, such as those from the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, that the number of people with gambling disorders doubles within 50 miles of a casino. Or, as the New York Council on Problem Gambling puts it, the incidence of gambling disorders increases with the opportunity to gamble. It makes you wonder if the strong similarity between such state government denial, and that which professionals tell us is a key indicator of someone with a gambling disorder, is a matter of just coincidence.
Legalizing casino gambling in New York isn’t the innocent means of capturing casino dollars Governor Cuomo prefers we believe it is. Rather, it’s fraught with avoidable risks for families and unaccounted costs to the broader taxpaying public. Granted, among those who see Mr. Cuomo through the eyes of an action hero his proposal may be perceived as gutsy. But for the rest of us, it’s difficult to see it as other than reckless.
Fast-forward to the 2013 State of the State address.
Here we observed the governor employ a different approach to the same theme. He avoided the diatribe intended to confuse gaming with gambling while nevertheless clinging to his underlying contention that amending the state constitution was the last refuge of the clear-headed. His bedrock principle this time around, conveyed with all the passion of a Baptist preacher, was simplicity itself – “because casinos are already here!” “What”, you ask? “Casinos, already here?” That’s right, because by Governor Cuomo’s decree, horse racing tracks with video lottery terminals (aka racinos) are now casinos. Poof! Just like that.
The entire affair was rapidly subsumed in the surreal ambiance of an old science fiction movie (something like, The Blob, with Steve McQueen, and yes I’m that old) and carried with it a kind of “back to the future” irony likely not lost on many sitting in the preacher’s pews, or listening as I was on-line. For starters, why bother with amending the state constitution if casinos are already here? I mean, if state government has flagrantly disregarded for so many years the preeminent document in the state, why waste time and money paying it lip service now?
Additionally, and this gets tricky, casinos are already here, though not for the reasons provided by the governor, or the kind he’s able to control to the degree he wants to – if he could, again, why bother with the constitution? What I’m referring to are sovereign Indian Nations – and their reported conflicts with the governor – who operate several class III gambling casinos in the state (without going into gambling minutiae here, the governor hopes to expand class III gambling facilities beyond Nation ownership, not necessarily create new racinos). It’s been alleged for some time that part of Mr. Cuomo’s end-game is bringing Nations to heel. Whether that’s true is a matter of speculation but not without merit, because it’s hard to understand why else he’d deviate from what might arguably have been perceived as a more persuasive argument, though the concerns expressed thus far remain unchanged.
Yet whatever negotiating cards Mr. Cuomo is holding close to his chest, he has kept one face up on the table, at least in an Albany kind of way: he has been steadfast in his refusal to make public any directive (no existence theorem implied) that calls for assessing what adverse impacts might reasonably be expected to ensue from realizing his vision, which is another way of saying he isn’t leveling with voters about who he expects to pay for those impacts. No, we’re just supposed to take him (and the rest of Albany) at his word. It’s a request that strains credulity, one the record indicates, at least on this matter, is fraught with hazards.
Now a friend has been trying to convince me of certain parallels between pitfalls of where we’re heading with Governor Cuomo’s casino gambling scheme (with so little detail, it can hardly be considered a plan), and where we’ve ended up with New York State’s sponsored Lottery and related activities. While I remain unconvinced, the two are inexorably entwined in at least two ways: each reflects gambling against the house, and state government would actively be promoting both.
So yes, it’s true that in 1966 New York State’s constitution was amended to permit lottery gambling under the guise of supporting education. And yes, as my friend points out, the entire affair has ballooned far beyond what many would have predicted. And as he’s also fond of noting, Albany’s decades-old “Lottery for Education” PR campaign has always parted company with Albany’s accounting practices in two important respects: by requiring Lottery proceeds go into a fiscal lock box reserved for education, while permitting commensurate reductions in education from other sources, and by Albany neglecting (I’m being generous) its responsibility to adequately fund addressing gambling disorders facilitated through its pro-gambling policies – no need to balance what isn’t in the book!
My friend’s point? If we amend the state constitution, we should expect another glitzy PR campaign running interference for state education growing progressively more dependent upon casino gambling, just as he points out has occurred with Lottery. Well, sort of. That’s because beyond Lottery/education marketing hype, state education’s annual reliance on Lottery is a mixed message: it’s both substantial in absolute dollars, yet modest when compared with all sources. But beyond all that, I can’t help thinking his argument could be more compelling.
As for me, in my struggle to decipher Albany I yearn for the less equivocal; nowhere else does no so often mean yes. And framed this way, Governor Cuomo’s behavior fits at least neatly, if not enviably, within Albany’s rich tradition, the most recent reincarnation of which comes to us in the form of his face-up card. It’s not exactly the kind of inspiring confidence-building quality we look for in a leader, but perhaps I ask for too much. Either way, it’s why I keep going back to kitchen-table basics of disclosure, shattered lives, and responsibility.
But at least my friend and I can agree on this much. On the question of whether legalizing casinos will usher in a new ethic, where state government assumes its responsibility for gambling disorders nurtured through its policies, it won’t.
Smart money, and decades of Albany failing to demonstrate otherwise, says we’re right.
Opinions expressed above are those of the writer, David Colavito, and do not necessarily reflect those of all members of CAGNY.