Last-Minute Push for NY Casino Measure

Polls show even split on question of whether state should permit up to seven casinos.

As polls suggest some uncertainty whether New Yorkers will OK a sweeping expansion of casino gambling in a November referendum, a coalition of business and labor groups have begun a last-minute effort to push the measure's passage.

The group, which does not include any private casino or racing industry companies, was announced hours after a new poll showed voters are evenly split46% apieceon the question of whether New York should permit up to seven new casinos in the coming years.

The Siena College Research Institute poll found, however, that when the complete ballot question was read to registered voters the percentage in support of the casino expansion rose to 55% while those opposed dropped to 42%.

The ballot question, criticized as overly rosy by anti-gambling groups, asks voters if they will support a change in the state constitution "to allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York state for the legislated purpose of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.''

While a majority of New Yorkers believe the state has enough gambling venues now and that societal problems will result from more casinos, a majority also believes the gambling halls will create jobs and bring the state more revenues.

The poll also found that 40% of respondents said they will be upset or very upset if the referendum fails, while 68% said they would feel that way if the casino expansion is approved.

While openly whispered about for weeks, the creation of a new coalition to push the casino expansion comes as the Cuomo administration is also set to start doing more to campaign for an idea first proposed two years ago by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The constitutional amendment proposes up to seven new, non-Indian casinos; a separate statute would limit the first four casinos to three large areas of upstate, though not including three regions already now home to Indian casinos. If the referendum fails, the statute still permits the state to open four new video lottery terminal casino halls, minus the real slots and table games the Las Vegas-style casinos would be allowed to offer. Though there are some loopholes, no casino could be located in New York City for at least seven years if the referendum passes.

The new coalition pushing the casino measure includes the state's largest business lobbying group, several unions including the state AFL-CIO and the New York City teachers unions, as well as several local government officials and business executives.

Would-be casino developers have still not announced to what extent they will spend money on an advertising campaign promoting the casino ballot measure.

Casino opponents have launched a grassroots educational campaign effort, which was supplemented on Sept. 30 with a new report by the non-partisan Institute for American Values. The group questioned the claims by Cuomo and supporters about potential job creation, saying they have offered no proof or studies to back up their numbers. The governor's budget office, for instance, has said the casinos will provide at least $400 million in new annual revenue for the state.

Over the weekend, the state's Catholic bishops warned New Yorkers to think about the implications of expanding casino gambling. Though the bishops did not outright oppose the casino plan, they did tell congregants on Sunday to weigh the social costs the added casinos will bring if approved in November.

Several racetracksall harness facilitiesin Saratoga Springs, Tioga and Monticello are among those interested in expanding their current VLT facilities into full-blown casinos if the referendum passes.