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Editorial: Albany should approve Cuomo plan on gambling

A video slot machine at the Resorts World

A video slot machine at the Resorts World Casino New York City that opened in 2011. (Oct. 28, 2011) Photo Credit: Resorts World Casino

As much of a mess as gambling in New York has become, it's not surprising that the fix isn't neatly wrapped up in a bow.

For almost two years Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has fought for a constitutional amendment to expand legal gambling. That this is necessary in a state that already has nine "racinos," five Indian casinos, a lottery and horse betting in person, by computer or phone -- not to mention the illegal options -- illustrates how silly the situation is now.

Cuomo wants to get the amendment passed, rationalize gaming rules and boost revenue in New York. In his efforts to do so, he has had to force the three tribes already running casinos upstate to turn over withheld tax dollars on both their casino and cigarette businesses, create real oversight of gambling, and get all the involved political and business interests either on board or backed into a corner.

To accomplish all that, imperfect legislation had to be fashioned. Now the best path forward for the State Legislature is to pass it. The constitutional amendment should also be approved, both by legislators and then by the state's voters, if only to start building the casinos that will keep more of New Yorkers' money here rather than sending it to Atlantic City, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

But the enabling legislation should also be revisited and improved in future sessions. The bill allows four upstate casinos now, and locations downstate, including Long Island, in seven years. That gives Cuomo a chance to tout the deal as an upstate development plan and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) the right to say he kept casinos out of New York City. To appease Long Island legislators, it gives them a cut of the action. Nassau and Suffolk each get one video lottery terminal parlor with 1,000 machines, to be operated by their off-track betting corporations. That's a mixed blessing, at best.

The deal is a political sausage, but one that's edible for most of the players. It would create revenue for the state for education, and for the municipalities that host the gaming. A cut of 10 percent of table game profits and about 40 percent of slot revenues would be split up: 80 percent of revenues to education statewide or property tax relief, 10 percent to the municipality and county that hosts each casino and 10 percent to nearby municipalities and counties. A fee of $500 per machine and table game would also be assessed annually to fund gambling addiction treatment and prevention programs. The legislation also seeks to limit the influence of gambling money on lobbying and contributions to political campaigns.

These aspects of the plan make sense.

But by putting off downstate casinos, it also would thwart the biggest selling point of casino expansion in the Empire State: As long as there are no downstate casinos, there would still be too much city and suburban money going to out-of-state casinos. And it wouldn't grow the pot by attracting sophisticated foreign travelers unlikely to take a ride to the Catskills to wager. Furthermore, leaving downstate out of near-term casino expansion could imperil the referendum on the amendment.

And if voters refuse to approve changing the state constitution, they still will get gambling, just the kind without live dealers. Cuomo has inserted a poison pill in the legislation with the specific intent to keep big-money gaming companies who wanted downstate casinos from mounting advertising campaigns to fight the referendum. If voters refuse to approve the amendment change, at least four more video lottery parlors will be built. Unfortunately, that means none of the development and better jobs a destination casino could bring, just buildings full of slots.

Cuomo hasn't hit the jackpot with this plan, but he has managed to present legislators with an easy choice. They need to approve it, because not doing so would be a complete bust.


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