Pro-Casino Money Flows in New York

Voters statewide will have their say on expanded gambling Nov. 5.

Pro-casino forces raised in excess of $3.5 million the last four weeks to finance television ads and mailings trying to convince New York voters to approve a large expansion of gambling facilities in the state.

Gambling opponents, including some religious groups and the state Conservative Party, have raised little and are instead relying on a low-cost, grassroots effort to try to beat back the push for more casinos by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, unions and would-be casino developers.

The pro-gambling money, which has included big donations from existing racetrack-based video lottery terminal casinos that are looking to become full-scale, Las Vegas-style casinos, included a last-minute surge of donations totaling $675,000 in just one day Oct. 31. In all, about $3.65 million has been raised by NY Jobs Now, a group whose members include business, labor, and gambling interests and which has been getting advice on its campaign from aides to Cuomo.

The governor proposed the initiative on the Nov. 5 statewide ballot. It would permit up to seven commercial casinos; currently, racetrack casinos are restricted to VLTs while the state's Indian tribes have full-blown casinos.

Genting New York, the Malaysian-headquartered company that runs the VLT casino at Aqueduct Racetrack, pumped in $750,000 to NY Jobs Now. Genting lost out on its bid to get slot machines and table games at Aqueduct in the first round of casino awards, though speculation is that the company is eyeing a possible casino site in the Catskill Mountains. Yonkers Raceway gave $500,000, while Tioga Downs and Saratoga Casino & Raceway tracks each donated $375,000.

Interestingly, none of the major international casino companies such as Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International, and Wynn Resorts gave money to the NY Jobs Now group, though they all had sizeable lobbying armies during the past legislative session when the final casino plan was approved by lawmakers and Cuomo. Speculation is those companies are awaiting the big prize that is not supposed to occur for seven years if the referendum is approved: casinos in New York City.

The New York Gaming Association, which represents all the state's tracks, has not donated to the group, though it has "Vote Yes" in giant letters on its web site. Some of the association's members are prohibited from getting a casino.

The first four casinos are set to be located in the Albany/Saratoga area, the eastern southern tier near Binghamton, and in the Catskills/Mid-Hudson Valley areas. Casinos would also be banned from three large areas of upstate New York that are home to Indian casinos; those regions will be protected by an exclusivity deal made this year by the tribes and Cuomo.

The Oneida Indian Nation, one of those tribes getting the exclusivity arrangement, gave $50,000 to the NY Jobs Now group. The Mashantucket Pequot Indians gave $100,000; the tribe, which owns the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, is one of several groups hoping to develop the two casinos in the Catskills if the referendum passes.

Polls have shown a modest lead for an affirmative vote on the casino plan, though with no statewide campaigns running this year voter turnout is expected to be low. With just a few days before election day, Cuomo himself has taken a low profile with the casino campaign, though it was one of his signature policy initiatives the past two years. Instead, he has been working behind the scenes with aides to help shape the effort by outside surrogate organizations and companies.

Unions, representing everyone from firefighters to teachers, have also donated to the pro-casino group. They are attracted to it by claims of big state aid for public schools from taxes on casino revenue to construction and permanent jobs the casinos would offer. A hotel workers' union donated $270,000, while a major teachers' union gave $250,000 and two unions representing carpenters donated $300,000.