Lawmakers consider delaying vote on allowing casinos
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have tried to jump start negotiations over siting several new gambling casinos in New York. But they also conceded that the plans might be delayed for another year.
Legislative leaders and Cuomo met for the first time together in over a month, and they focused on an issue they had originally hoped to settle in the budget: the expansion of gambling in New York.
Lawmakers in 2012 achieved first passage of a constitutional amendment that would allow up to seven new gambling parlors in the state. But Cuomo says he’d prefer to begin with just three casinos, located upstate, for now. He says fixing the ailing upstate economy is “the single greatest challenge” he faces, and a gambling center could help.
“A potential big regional economic generator would be a casino resort destination,” said Cuomo.
State Sen. Dean Skelos, a Republican, would like to also see a casino sited downstate as well, perhaps on Long Island, where he is from. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, is on board with a downstate location, as long as it is not in Manhattan, where the Speaker lives.
And there are other differences that still need to be resolved, including who will have the power to choose exactly where the new casinos would be located. The governor wants to appoint what he says would be an independent commission to choose the sites, and the vendors.
Cuomo says he has concerns that the siting process could become too political or could create a conflict of interest.
“These are very lucrative franchises, the amount of lobbying, the amount of intergovernmental activity that goes on around one of these casino sitings is very intense,” Cuomo said. “The state has not had good experience in the past with siting casinos. It became a very messy situation.”
A former state inspector general’s report raised questions about the way the gambling corporation AEG was chosen to run slot-like machines at the Aqueduct Race track, alleging that pay-to-play activities occurred. No charges have been filed so far.
But legislators say they want some input over where the casinos are ultimately built, and that it can’t all be left up to a commission appointed by the governor.
Skelos says New York voters also need to know where the casinos will be before they are asked to approve the deal.
“Voters have a right to know,” Skelos said.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver agrees.
“We don’t believe you can pass an amendment and just say to the public ‘trust us’,” Silver said.
It also has not been decided whether local government approval would be required in order to site a casino.
Some lawmakers have expressed concern about the timing of the next steps in the gambling expansion process. In order to alter the state’s constitution, two consecutively elected legislatures must approve the change. It then goes to voters for final approval or rejection.
Legislators originally planned to have voters consider the proposal in November. But this year, there are no statewide races, though there are major competitions for mayor in New York City and county executive on Long Island. Some supporters of casino gambling worry that turnout for the downstate races will dwarf the more low key local races upstate.
If there is no casino planned for the New York City area, and only ones upstate, voters downstate might not be in favor of the amendment, or simply be uninterested in the matter and skip the proposal altogether. In 2014, there will be a governor’s race, and more upstate voters will be likely to turn out at the polls.
Cuomo says he’s not ruling out waiting an extra year to hold the vote, in order to improve its chances of passage.
“That would be an option,” Cuomo said. “That I would be open to.”
Cuomo says even if the public vote is delayed, the casino siting legislation would still need to be passed this year, based on a decades old opinion issued by a former state attorney general, who said that constitutional amendment votes by the legislature need to happen in consecutive years, and can’t skip a year in between votes.
The governor says the casino bill is one of his priority items for the end of the legislative session, which finishes up next month.