Measure Would Give N.Y. Tracks Full Casinos

Racetracks in New York would be permitted to have full Las Vegas-style casinos under new state legislation that also calls for a constitutional amendment to permit non-Indian casinos in the Catskills and Western New York.

The amendment, introduced this week in the Republican-led Senate, would permit the casinos at every track in the state except Belmont Park. Nearly all of the tracks are attempting to open video lottery terminal operations.

"This gives them an opportunity to have casinos also. It sweetens the pot better for racetracks and helps the Thoroughbred industry,'' said Sen. John Bonacic, an Orange County Republican who said he introduced the measure with the support of his GOP colleagues, including Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

Amendments allowing casino gambling have been introduced unsuccessfully numerous times over the past decade. But this plan comes as state officials grow increasingly frustrated with Indian tribes, who were permitted to open up to six casinos under a 2001 law. So far, only one casino in Niagara Falls has opened. Insiders at the Capitol speculated the proposal may be simply a bargaining chip to try to push the Indian tribes to cut new casino deals.

But Bonacic insisted his main goal is to get casinos opened in the Catskills, Buffalo and at the racetracks. He acknowledged "an ancillary benefit'' of his proposal would be to jump-start stalled Indian negotiations for new casinos.

The plan faces a number of obstacles, including the requirement that it pass two separately elected, successive sessions of the Legislature, and then a statewide referendum. If the Legislature OKs the measure, the earliest voters could consider it would be November 2005.

Unlike the 2001 law that permits only VLTs at racetracks, the new proposal calls for slot machines and other traditional casino games. The racetrack gambling would be permitted for no more than eight hours on days with live racing. Though Bonacic said only Belmont would be excluded from the casino proposal, his bill appears to also restrict Aqueduct as well. It would permit it at the New York Racing Association's Saratoga racetrack. It is unclear how much of the revenues would be kept by the state and the racing industry.

A spokesman for Gov. George Pataki did not rule out backing the Bonacic proposal. "We have been open to exploring this type of constitutional amendment, which would provide an additional tool to attract new jobs and investments to the Catskills and other parts of the state,'' said Todd Alhart.

The leader of the state Assembly, Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, did not return calls seeking comment.

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