ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo committed Thursday to holding a statewide referendum on casino expansion this fall, after considering waiting until next year. His plan would also give new upstate casinos a five-year head start on any downstate competitors.
The governor reinforced his commitment to limiting casino expansion to areas north of New York City's northern suburbs for now. He wants to authorize three upstate gambling facilities and give them five years to flourish before facing downstate competition.
His plan puts him at odds with some state legislators who contend an upstate-only casino plan would fail at the ballot box. With the New York City mayoral race dominating elections this year, voters there would have little reason to back a casino referendum that focuses on upstate, they say.
Cuomo recently acknowledged that factor and said he was weighing delaying the vote until next year, when he and other statewide officials are up for election. But he dropped that idea Thursday.
"My opinion is it's not worth putting off another year," the governor said.
Asked how he would "sell" the proposal to downstate voters, Cuomo said upstate casinos would help the state's coffers and generate more school aid for all locales.
Though gambling money is technically earmarked for education, studies have shown it is effectively fungible, commingling with other state funds.
The state already has numerous gambling venues. There are nine video slot machine parlors -- dubbed "racinos" -- that operate at horse tracks, including Aqueduct in Queens and Yonkers Raceway. The Seneca Nation runs three casinos in Western New York. The Oneida Nation has one near Utica and the Mohawks operate a casino and a giant bingo hall in northern New York near the St. Lawrence River.
Rank-and-file lawmakers last year approved a resolution to amend the state constitution to create up to seven new non-Indian-run casinos. That resolution must be approved again this year, then gain voter support it in a statewide referendum before any casino can go forward.
Cuomo threw a curveball earlier this year when he proposed splitting casino development into two phases, first creating three upstate gambling facilities and putting off further expansion. Several upstate legislators, while backing casino expansion, have said Cuomo's idea is too narrow to garner enough statewide support to win passage.
Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) have said they believe downstate locations should be part of the mix. A Skelos spokesman said the senator was "eager" to review Cuomo's new proposal.