The upcoming referendum on whether to amend the NYS constitution and allow “up to seven casinos as prescribed by the legislature” has been subverted by Governor Cuomo, turned into an ultimatum to all who oppose the amendment for its expansion of predatory gambling. ” Heads I win, tails you lose.” New Yorkers, even those who favor the amendment, should be horrified. This behavior belongs to a despot or a cartoon alien invading the planet, not to a Governor who proclaimed he wants the people to say yes or no to amending the constitution. What happened ?
Simply put, if the amendment fails, Lottery gets carte blanche to expand instead. The “Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act of 2013,” passed on 21 June as S 5883 (same as A 8101), provides in section 32 a. (3) that if the amendment does not pass referendum, Lottery is authorized to operate an unspecified number of new Video Lottery Terminal (VLT) facilities of unspecified size, not necessarily at race tracks. The VLT facilities provided for in this hedge plan would go into the three “regions” of “zone 2” that are not excluded by compacts with Indians, viz. Catskills + Hudson Valley, Eastern Southern Tier and Capital Region. An article originating with AP in Albany http://online.wsj.com/article/APbabc9a4fefdc488cb8a30eb9ec800e12.html cites possible numbers (three or four upstate) and possible sizes (up to five thousand VLTs each). These numbers are not in the bill, but were softly confirmed by a spokesperson for the Governor on June 19.
Thus a successful fight against the amendment would be punished by the imposition of a gambling system probably no better for New York’s people than “up to seven” casinos. [There is no reason to think Lottery would stop at four new slot barns; that was a trial balloon on one day in June.]
The hedge plan unveiled in June was probably mostly a “poison pill” for two readily identifiable groups to which the amendment could bring damaging competition. One was the Seneca Nation, which as of June 12 was not yet “in good standing.” The next day, however, the Nation moved into that status. http://www.indianz.com/IndianGaming/2013/026500.asp Now assured of no new competition in their territory, they would cease to threaten the amendment. The pill was no longer toxic to them. The other group, the New York Gaming Association (the racino lobby) had come out on June 10th against the Governor’s Program Bill, as it was then called. [To see that press release, which on the web site is undated, go to their web site and click on press releases . http://www.newyorkgaming.org/Home.aspx ] NYGA voiced fears that new casinos would take away 85% of their action. They were quickly placated with changes ensuring that the horse industry would not take a loss in the large (> $200 million last year) income stream it counts on from racino VLTs. Any new casinos would have to pitch in to keep parity. Not long before June 21, the NYGA reversed its stand in a second press release [also on their web site, undated].
The “poison pill,” in Section 32 was made by developments around mid-June less baneful to the two richest groups that want predatory gambling in NYS but not competition. It still had had potency as of voting day, June 21. It could deter opposition to the amendment that might spring up if any of the May-June agreements with Indian casino operators fell through before Election Day. On out-of-state casino interests, however, it would probably have little effect. Though expected by many to work [under false flags] against the amendment, these groups would would not see section 32 as virulent to them. They would surely prefer that if NYS must boost its predatory gambling it go with slot barns, not full-scale casinos.
The constituency to which the poison pill is most bitter and potentially paralyzing is opponents of predatory gambling. We are perhaps collateral casualties of the Governor’s tactics to neutralize, or actually turn, rich profit-seeking opponents of the amendment . Or (this may be folie de grandeur) the Governor sees us as a threat to his objective, a threat that needs to be squashed. We don’t need to know. In either case, the Governor and those who craft his bills have done their utmost to make the referendum meaningless. Instead of a plebiscite on whether to amend the constitution it has become a double bind: casinos or VLT barns. See the New York Post http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/editorials/gambling_man_FRWmSBGiGVE5KXK1w58IcM
The VLT barn hedge plan has been latent since September 2001, when the legislature at the urging of Gov. Pataki authorized thousands of VLTs at racetracks as “racinos.” In the words of Gov. Cuomo (May 9 press conference) “The racinos were created to get around, frankly, the existing state law and they were in many ways created as a loophole, but for all intents and purposes they are a casino.” Why VLT proliferation was not Gov. Cuomo’s plan A for gambling expansion is for speculation. Let’s suppose that in early 2012 he truly believed (unlike us) that casinos bring “economic development” that VLT barns would not. Let’s credit him with a desire to play by the rules and respect the Constitution, as long as he looks like winning. This wish foundered in June 2013 when polls showed his approval rating going down and no clear margin of victory for a future amendment. Time for the ace in the hole.
Coalition Against Gambling in New York will oppose the amendment even if the hedge plan in section 32 forces an odious alternative to casinos. If the amendment fails as it deserves to, we and other groups allied against predatory gambling will seek legislation to amend section 32 and defang it.
The opinions expressed herein are those of the writer, Stephen Q. Shafer and do not necessarily reflect opinions of all members of CAGNY. Permission is granted to reproduce this text in whole or part as long as the permalink attached is cited.