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More VLTs could be a jackpot for Suffolk and Nassau

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Daily Point

Nassau, Suffolk county executives gamble on power plays

In Suffolk County, the battle between the county executive and the Off-Track Betting authority has exploded into full view, as The Point reported yesterday. The OTB, banking wins of as much as $1 million a day from Islandia’s Jake’s 58, is looking to get 1,000 new machines and buy operator Delaware North out of the business. But County Executive Steve Bellone wants to at least explore knocking the OTB out of the picture and putting both the jobs and the profits of the operation under the direct control of his office.

And something similar is brewing in Nassau between the Republican-controlled OTB and County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat.

Nassau OTB President Joseph Cairo says he wants another 1,000 machines and he’s open to how he uses them. Nassau’s current allotment of 1,000 slots is operated by Genting at its Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack, but the 2016 deal a cornered Cairo negotiated is not as profitable for New York State or Nassau County as Jake’s 58 is for Suffolk.

"With the trouble we had siting the machines in Nassau, the outcry of residents over several locations we looked at, we made an agreement with Genting that I think is very good for the county and OTB," Cairo said. "They have been good partners, and even during the COVID shutdown they continued to pay us $1.18 million a month."

But the split on Nassau’s machines is so beneficial to Genting that it has positioned Nassau’s 1,000 VLTs in such a way on the casino floor to get the heaviest play of the more than 5,000 machines it operates, to maximize profits.

Cairo also defended his deal with Genting, saying OTB will make more money if Resorts World gets a full casino license, but he pointed out that he is not obligated to put any additional machines the OTB gets under the company’s control.

"I don’t know exactly how we’d deploy another 1,000," Cairo told The Point.

But Curran’s administration is looking at a different angle. County officials say they want 1,000 new machines to be controlled by the county, not OTB.

Cairo says that’s not legal under current law, which says OTBs must control the machines. But in New York, budget season is the time of year when new laws and opportunities can suddenly bloom.

And in this case, Long Island’s two county executives are looking to gambling to grow both their income stream and their influence over jobs and contracts.

But there are differences, some unexpected. In Nassau, the battle over who will get the machines is thus far so polite it’s practically courtly. That might be a sign that nothing will really happen.

But in Suffolk, where Bellone is fighting a fellow Democrat, party chairman Rich Schaffer, for control, the gloves are off and the punches are roundhouses.

—Lane Filler @lanefiller

Talking Point

City workers are not eager to return to their offices

Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that people who work for the city who are not already working in "frontline" positions must begin returning to the office on May 3.

He said it would send a "powerful message" about the city’s recovery, and certainly New York’s business community seems to be on the same page about getting people back to empty office buildings. Landlords like RXR Realty have been bringing employees to the office during COVID-19 and Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) President James Whelan supported de Blasio’s move.

"Getting more workers safely back to the office will play a key role in kickstarting New York’s economy," Whelan said in a statement.

Many city workers, however, are less thrilled about being kickstarters themselves, in what might be a lesson for other public and private employers about ending remote work.

Shortly after de Blasio went public with the shift, a group organized under the social media handle @CityWorkers4NYC put out a letter asking for a pause on returning to the office and policy changes to safeguard workers and their families.

"City workers will not have our lives sacrificed for the sake of supporting a false narrative of recovery or for the Mayor’s political gain," said the group, which formed during the George Floyd protests last summer to give city staffers a way to criticize de Blasio’s police record. The coalition is now in communication with hundreds of current and former city workers, says organizer Jeremiah Cedeño, a former city census worker.

The group’s letter includes testimonials written under pen names about the lack of ventilation in city workspaces, fears of infection or questions about the point of it all.

"If our team is staggered and not in the office on the same days we will still be on Zoom or phone calls and our desktop computers don't have cameras to enable Zoom, so what's the point?" asked one worker.

Other workers called it a "PR stunt" just to get them back in a cubicle.

DC 37, the union which represents 150,000 public employees, has also registered some concern, and suggested alternate seating and barriers at desks to help keep employees safe.

Other city workers were happy to vent to The Point, raising other issues: What happens to workers who share tiny, personal offices? Was all this just a game of brinksmanship to encourage city workers to get their vaccines? Would the gains to get downtown businesses hopping be worth the risk?

"I’m honored to be a part of worsening the global pandemic so that I can boost the fortunes of real estate interest groups," one city employee said in a text to The Point. "REBNY can erect a monument to the pandemic dead outside of a Chase Bank in midtown that saw a marginal increase in foot traffic."

—Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano

Pencil Point

Allergies incoming

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Final Point

Why New York doesn’t have referrendums

New York’s road to legal adult use recreational marijuana was different from that of other states for a very structural reason: It was done legislatively, not through ballot initiative. The same was true of same-sex marriage, which some states chose to approve by vote.

It could not have been otherwise. New York voters have limited power on the state level to vote directly via referendum — though residents can vote on proposed state borrowing, the possibility of a state constitutional convention, and individual constitutional amendments proposed by the legislature.

There’s a long history to this lack of options.

For the most part, the movement to give people the right to initiate laws happened in the early 20th century during the populist, Progressive movement of the time, said John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.

"There was a feeling that legislatures weren’t representing the people" and were unduly influenced by big corporations or city machine politics, said Matsusaka.

States including Massachusetts and Maine adopted initiative rights in this period, but it was more prominently a "Western thing," Matsusaka said, noting that the political systems there may have been "less mature or less developed" and less able to fight against initiatives.

One reason states wouldn’t go for initiatives: "It’s the legislature not wanting to give up power," said Matsusaka.

"It never took hold in New York because the party organizations were too strong," explained noted New York political scientist Gerald Benjamin.

There were further pushes for statewide initiatives later in the 20th century, including in New York, but they didn’t come to be for the Empire State — in contrast to 24 states and some 80% of the nation’s largest cities, according to Matsusaka.

In the modern era, ballot initiatives were sometimes seen as conservative tools — see the tax-limiting Proposition 13 in California. But recently, the tool has been used for more currently "progressive" issues like marijuana, the minimum wage or animal rights, said Matsusaka: "It’s just a safety valve."

But not for New York.

—Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano