Sen. John Bonacic, chairman of the New York Senate Racing, Gaming, and Wagering Committee whose district includes the Catskill Mountains, introduced a measure May 23 to ban casinos on Long Island and New York City, except the borough of Queens.
The bill would, however, permit video lottery terminals on Long Island at two facilities run by the Nassau and Suffolk off-track betting corporations, and also require the New York Gaming Commission to study possibly putting VLTs at resorts in economically depressed areas of the state.
The legislation, which has the support of a number of GOP senators, will be incorporated into discussions now under way involving Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders to craft a final deal to permit up to seven new non-Indian casinos to bring to voters in a statewide referendum this November.
"What we had in mind in laying out this plan is it would give the referendum the best chance of passage," Bonacic said in an interview May 23. "It would give much wider transparency on where a casino could go in their area, and more importantly, where they couldn't go in areas."
The bill would permit the first license to be issued, for a facility in the Catskills, Jan. 1, 2014. Every six months, a new license could be issued for another of the targeted upstate regions.
By year five, a casino could be located in either Queens or Westchester counties, or an area of upstate New York that no longer has an exclusivity casino compact with an Indian tribe.
Bonacic said the Queens facility could be an expansion of Aqueduct Racetrack, which has VLTs, into a Class III facility, or it could be located elsewhere in the borough by a different casino developer.
The legislation also changes the structure of the gaming commission, a body that has not yet had its board of directors chosen, in part, because officials are having a hard time attracting individuals who want to serve in the busy post without a salary. The new Senate bill would create nine-year terms for the board members and pay them; it would also make the commission less under the control of Cuomo, who has the right to select five of the seven board members.
The gaming commission would also appoint a five-member panel of financial and real estate experts who would offer non-binding recommendations on casino developer selections. In addition, localities identified for one of the first five casinos would also have to approve the facility.
Bonacic said it would not take, as seen in states like Massachusetts, a local voter referendum, but could be done by a county board of supervisors or a planning board.
He said current state-authorized payments to racetracks would continue as-is, but future purse levels and other payment structures would be up to the board. He also said he believes track-based casinos will have a "leg up" in competing for the new casinos because they are already proven to be successful, have capital funding on hand, and are likely to win local approval.
The legislation includes something it calls a "Belmont revitalization fund" that would make up to $75 million available over five years for Belmont Park if a casino is approved in Queens.
Bonacic said permitting two new VLT-only facilities on Long Island was done for a specific reason.
"What you're trying to do is build support for the referendum on Long Island. That's the purpose of that," he said.
Some officials have worried that an upstate-focused casino plan might not help the referendum pass with downstate voters in an election year when there are no statewide contests in November to help draw out potential supporters.
Besides the three in the Catskills, where the Monticello Raceway VLT operation is located, the new plan calls for one in the Southern Tier region, where there is a track-based VLT facility called Tioga Downs Casino, and one in the Capital District, which includes Saratoga Springs, home of Saratoga Casino & Raceway.The bill goes along with a Cuomo plan to ban casinos in a large area of northern and central New York because of recent deals the governor signed with Indian tribes to give them exclusivity protections for their currently operating casinos.
Western New York could be eligible for a new casino in five years under the Senate plan if the Seneca Nation of Indians, which owns three Class III casinos, cannot end its dispute with the state that has halted about $600 million in revenue-sharing payments to the state.
Bonacic said a five-county Catskills area would be eligible for the most number of new casinos because the region was promised three gambling halls in a 2001 law; those Indian-run facilities never opened.
"I've tried to put an intelligent plan forward so the governor could reflect on it and try to incorporate some of these ideas because let's face it: The governor is driving the bus, and the legislature is on the bus, and this is going to be the governor's gaming plan," Bonacic said. "I'm giving him suggestions in a humble way that I believe will allow the referendum the best chance of passage.
"I think it fulfills the governor's parameters of trying to help upstate with those regions that have high unemployment. It tells the gaming commission where (casinos) can go and not go, and that gives a sense of comfort to the electorate on how they should vote.
"We need a revenue-enhancer in New York. We need jobs upstate. This could be a game-changer for certain areas that are hurting upstate."