Maybe it’s easier to win video roulette than it is...

Maybe it’s easier to win video roulette than it is to find a seat inside Aqueduct Racetrack’s “racino.” More than 20,000 people showed up for the racino's opening; some waited hours to enter the facility. (Oct. 28, 2011) Credit: Jason Andrew

ALBANY -- Racinos, which offer video slot machines along with horse racing, are stepping up a campaign at the State Capitol to persuade lawmakers to allow them -- and only them -- to operate Las Vegas-style casinos across New York.

Racinos spent about $1.6 million in 2011 on campaign contributions and lobbying, state records show. They are expected to spend even more in 2012 as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the legislature consider a constitutional amendment to allow full-scale casinos, lobbyists and government watchdogs say.

Part of the spending includes funds the tracks have begun pouring into the newly created New York Gaming Association. In papers filed with the state Ethics Commission, numerous tracks list the association as being related to their lobbying. In addition, the association contributed about $78,000 to political campaigns last year.

"We are working jointly to advance an agenda they are all part of," James Featherstonhaugh, head of the association and a longtime lobbyist, said of its affiliation with racetracks. "It's what I would call loosely coordinated. We share the same goal."

The association's members are the nine so-called racinos that feature racing and video slots, including Aqueduct in Queens. Along with lobbying and campaign contributions, they've launched a website and produced reports touting jobs created and revenue generated at the racinos.

The racinos are using that as a springboard to push for Las Vegas-style casinos, offering poker, craps and other table games.

 

Cuomo's plan faces hurdles

Cuomo has proposed a constitutional amendment to end New York's ban on non-Indian-run casinos. His spare proposal doesn't outline any limits on casinos or proposed sites. The legislature could take up the measure this month and would have to pass it again in another legislative session before putting the issue to a statewide referendum. The soonest any referendum could go to voters would be November 2013.

Cuomo has pushed legislators to take up the measure soon.

The Gaming Association, aware that some legislators don't want an open-ended amendment, is pressing them to limit expansion to the nine racinos.

"We're perfectly happy with the governor's proposed amendment as is," Featherstonhaugh said. "But we also realized that before second passage there will have to be complete transparency about where [expansion] is being proposed."

He added: "We think we have a fair amount of support" for allowing only current racinos to become casinos.

Of the racino interests, Genting -- a Malaysia-based casino company that operates slots at Aqueduct -- spent the most, $735,000, on lobbying and contributions in 2011. Genting also has Cuomo's backing to build the world's largest convention center at the track.

It says it has a "proactive agenda that includes building a $4 billion convention center and legalizing table gaming in New York," both of which it says will create tens of thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars in economic revenue.

Yonkers Raceway spent $47,000 on campaign contributions and $326,000 on lobbying. Yonkers officials didn't return calls seeking comment.

Empire Resorts, which operates the harness track and slots at Monticello in the Catskill region, spent $4,000 on contributions but $168,000 on lobbying. Empire unveiled plans last week to move the racetrack and casino several miles as part of a new $600 million resort in Monticello.

Jeff Gural, a Manhattan developer who owns Tioga Downs near Binghamton, contributed about $96,000 to campaigns. Tioga Downs separately contributed about $16,000.

 

Senate, Assembly weigh in

The Republican-led Senate backs the idea of allowing voters to decide on casinos, although it hasn't taken a position on giving only racinos gaming rights. The Democratic-controlled Assembly hasn't taken a position as a bloc, but Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has said he doesn't want casinos in New York City.

Assemb. Gary Pretlow (D-Mt. Vernon), chairman of the Racing and Wagering Committee, has introduced a bill that would amend the constitution to specifically permit the racinos to expand to casinos.

"Allowing casino gaming at harness horse racing tracks will undoubtedly bring additional revenue to the State of New York," Pretlow said in a memo. "Furthermore, casino gaming would create tens of thousands of new jobs, bringing in even more revenue."

Cuomo has noted that along with racinos, New York is home to five Indian-run casinos. "We're already in the gaming business. We just don't call it the gaming business," the governor said last week.

As lawmakers consider the expansion proposal, Cuomo sounded confident, as if first passage of the amendment is already assured this year and he's looking ahead to 2013. "We will have a challenge next year, when we go to the people on this issue, to overcome an initial skepticism that people have," he said.

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