This artists rendering provided by the Genting Group shows a...

This artists rendering provided by the Genting Group shows a $4 billion convention center and casino planned for the Aqueduct race track in the Queens borough of New York. Credit: AP

When New York legalized casino gambling in 2013 and placed a 10-year moratorium on downstate locations, the countdown began to a battle for the three sites in or near New York City that would hit the jackpot.

Then COVID-19 battered state revenues and lawmakers saw the opportunity and need to hurry the issuing of downstate licenses.

Now that Washington has come through with billions in aid, the urgency has waned but the hunger for the opportunity persists. Progressives in the State Senate and Assembly want $7 billion in tax increases that moderate Democrats including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have little stomach for, and the revenue from new casinos remains tantalizing.

This is high-stakes politics, with big-money players looking to buy an edge.

Genting, the gaming giant that owns slot-parlor Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, has spent over $1 million on lobbyists in New York since July. MGM, which operates electronic games at the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway, has shelled out $300,000. And Las Vegas Sands Corp., with no presence in the New York City area, dropped $200,000 from July through December in an effort to change that.

The Assembly budget makes no mention of downstate casinos. The Senate budget included revenue from awarding those three licenses at $500 million a pop. It also included a 10% "speed to market" factor that gives a huge leg up to MGM and Genting, the presumed leaders of the pack for full table-game licenses. Resorts World is located in the district of Senate Gaming Committee chair Joseph Addabbo. Empire City Casino sits in Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins' district and nestles the one represented by Assembly Gaming Committee chairman Gary Pretlow.

Cuomo’s budget proposal, however, envisions a much slower pace, starting with a request for information and an open process.

In the final days of Albany budget negotiations, the horse-trading is fast and furious, and the tension is ratcheted up. But it's wise to let the licenses be bid for now so we can take the money later. Doing all three licenses at the same time will start a fair bidding war and let New Yorkers watch the process in action. It will take time to get it all rolling and revenue won't be needed until 2023.

Another reason to go slowly is to address the interests of the long-ignored Shinnecock Indian Nation, which wants to build a casino in eastern Suffolk County. How much gambling the area can sustain, as local OTBs push for more video lottery terminals and local governments increasingly depend on the revenue from them, is also a concern.

As gambling expands its footprint in New York, the game is all about money. But it must be the best interests of communities and taxpayers, not the insider sway of high-rolling casino corporations, that wins the pot.

— The editorial board