Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Call it the $174 million bet.
This week, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and their OTB presidents will meet with Long Island's state legislative delegation to press for a piece of the action in pending state gaming bills.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is pushing for passage of a bill to amend the state constitution to authorize up to seven non-Indian-run casinos in New York, and to place a referendum on the issue on the November ballot. He has made clear he initially wants to place three casino sites in economically struggling upstate areas, and to subsequently add three others.
Nassau and Suffolk, both facing significant budget problems, are eager for new sources of recurring revenues without raising taxes or imposing additional layoffs. Their proposal is to create a joint Nassau-Suffolk gaming emporium -- at a site to be determined -- with 2,000 high-tech slot machines, known as Video Lottery Terminals. They could bring in $174 million to the state and counties, with Nassau and Suffolk getting about $20 million to $25 million each.
On May 17, a headline in a city tabloid saying Cuomo had rejected video slots for Nassau and Suffolk gave supporters of the concept a start. But the plan's odds of success increased significantly late last week when state Sen. John Bonacic (R-Mount Hope), chairman of the racing and wagering committee, filed a bill calling for five upstate casinos -- three in his Catskills district -- and VLT parlors in Nassau and Suffolk. His proposal also would permit casinos in Westchester and Queens after 2018.
Long Island's two Off Track Betting agencies had gotten nowhere lobbying for VLTs on their own, but Nassau and Suffolk this year have presented a united front. Bonacic's bill makes the issue a central part of the debate in Albany.
"I'm not a gambler, but I bet our bill will play a role in bringing VLTs to Long Island," said freshman Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), who had sponsored an earlier bill to do just that. "The smart money is now on this [Bonacic's] proposal passing."
Veteran Albany lobbyist Desmond Ryan warned that there is no sure thing in the last days of the legislative session, noting that elements of any proposal can be dropped in horse-trading. "It's a chess move, but nothing is settled," Ryan said.
VLT backers say Long Island is shortchanged on gaming revenues compared with other parts of the state, even though Nassau and Suffolk's nearly 3 million residents make up 14 percent of New York's population.
"All we're looking for is some equity," said Deputy Suffolk County Executive Jon Schneider. "And the best way to do that is allow us to keep some of the gaming revenues that are now leaving Long Island."
Opponents of the Long Island VLTs say allowing them in Nassau and Suffolk OTB parlors would spur other OTB operations around the state to ask for the same, undermining Cuomo's casino development idea. State lawmakers from New York City who already have seen their OTB fold may not want to prop up Long Island's OTBs or create competition for racinos in Yonkers and at Aqueduct. Also, the Long Island VLT proposal runs counter to Cuomo's plans to put all gambling under the control of a seven-member statewide commission that would control revenues.
The Long Island OTBs, meanwhile, continue to face strong headwinds including Internet competition, high payouts to the racing industry and an aging customer base. Suffolk OTB is struggling to climb out of bankruptcy, while Nassau has seen declining wagering and is limping along.
"It's early in the negotiations, but . . . I'm certainly more optimistic than reading in the New York Post that VLTs were dead," said Joseph Cairo, president of Nassau OTB.