As NYRA stares at a December 31 expiration of its current franchise, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a one-time NYRA booster, called for the racing entity’s board to resign and questioned its ability to run Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga racetracks.
“The slate needs to be wiped clean,’’ Bruno said in a curiously timed statement December 10. Only a week ago, Senate officials were saying Bruno would be comfortable with NYRA continuing to run racing, but that he wanted other aspects of the business – including the simulcasting operation – to be taken over by others.
“NYRA has repeatedly used bankruptcy as a cover to resist change and complicate negotiations on the future of the racing franchise,’’ Bruno said. He referred to a audit last week by the state comptroller showing NYRA underpaid the state $10.9 million in franchise fees during a recent two year period, and an investigation underway by a state investigations panel involving a lucrative, no-bid contract to its outside “integrity’’ counsel.
He said the audit and investigation amount to “basically votes of no confidence in NYRA and its board of directors.’’
“The state should provide the necessary funds to clear up NYRA’s financial difficulties and the governor should accept the resignations of NYRA’s board of directors,’’ he added. He called on Spitzer to engage in daily talks over the soon-to-be-expiring franchise.
Bruno last week said Spitzer had quietly obtained the resignations of the NYRA board, but would only make them effective if need be during talks with the Legislature. Officials have denied any such resignation letters exist.
It remained unclear whether Bruno’s latest salvo is merely a negotiating tactic, or a sign of how bad negotiations are going. Officials with the governor’s office and the Assembly and Senate met December 9, but reported a widening in the dispute. One source said Spitzer had joined Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in now opposing expansion of a VLT casino at Belmont. Aqueduct is already in line for a casino.
Bruno's critics say his actions appear designed to help one or more of NYRA's competitors. Bruno has never publicly endorsed any of NYRA's competitors for the franchise rights. A spokesman for Bruno last week said Bruno has no players in the competition, and would prefer a new state authority be created to pick different entities to run the franchise.
Bruno is said to be under pressure from business and civic leaders in Saratoga, which he represents in the Senate, not to do anything that would disrupt racing. They fear a shut-down of racing if a deal is not reached could hold catastrophic implications for a city that relies on the annual summer meet.
Bruno has insisted racing can continue if no deal is reached by December 31 because a state oversight panel can be put in charge of the franchise. But NYRA insists it owns the racetracks, and its land claim dispute will go right back into bankruptcy court if the franchise is not extended, officials have threatened.