Interests Spent Big for NY Casino Lobbying

Racing, real estate, and casino industries spent $1 million to push legislation.

Interests representing racing, real estate, and casino industries opened their wallets wide open to pay for lobbyists and campaign donations during a final frenzy when New York officials approved a plan to permit up to seven new casinos in the state.

In all, the various interests, led by Genting New York, spent $1,033,000 in just the last two months of the legislative session in May and June on a virtual army of politically connected lobbyists. Many of the entities were represented during the entire six-month session, but a number of major companies, with interests from the Catskills resort area to Las Vegas, retained lobbyists at the last minute when key decisions were being made by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers.

The lobbying figures, on file with the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, do not include contributions from racing, development, and casino interests. The Buffalo News, which first reported the lobbying expense figures, said the gambling interests—including three Indian tribes that were looking to protect their existing Class III casino operations in New York—donated more than $500,000 during the past six months to various politicians and party organizations.

The New York Public Interest Research Group in May reported nearly $2 million in political contributions from December 2010 to January 2013 from entities with a "strong'' interest in the outcome of the casino debate.

Money for lobbyists came from corporations with headquarters based around the globe, including England, the Isle of Man, Malaysia, and Canada, as well as states from New York and Kentucky to Nevada and California.

Genting New York, operator of the Aqueduct Racetrack casino, had six different firms listed as lobbyists representing it on gambling-related issues. In May and June alone, it spent $211,000 on lobbying. Genting wanted to become a full-blown, Las Vegas-style casino with real slots and table games instead of its limited VLT device offerings. In the end, officials gave Genting a lucrative provision in the casino bill: no new casino can open in New York City for at least seven years.

Genting officials did not respond for comment.

The casino expansion asks New York voters this November to approve a change in the state constitution allowing up to seven new betting facilities. A separate piece of legislation, which could be changed in the years ahead, would place limits on the locations of the first four casinos.

Besides limits in the New York City area, officials cut out large areas of the state for new casino development as a bow to recent settlement deals with Indian tribes that protect the Native American casinos from getting new, nearby competition. What's left would be three regions for possible casino development: the Albany/Saratoga Springs area, the Catskills and Mid-Hudson Valley area, and the southern tier area centered around Binghamton.

The New York Gaming Association, which represents the nine tracks that have existing racinos, spent nearly $60,000 on lobbying in May and June. It also contributed about $172,000 in the first six months of the year to New York political causes.

"Yes,'' replied James Featherstonhaugh, the group's president, when asked if all the effort is worth it. He is also an Albany lobbyist and part owner of the harness track and racino in Saratoga Springs.

"If you read the legislation, you'll see that the bill created a number of protections for existing (track-based casino) license holders that leave them on a level playing field,'' he told The Buffalo News.

Others spending money on lobbyists during May and June include: The Jockey Club ($5,000); Churchill Downs Inc. ($20,000); The Stronach Group ($20,000); Las Vegas Sands ($10,000); Wynn Resorts ($20,000); Caesar's International ($35,000); and MGM Resorts International. Rational Services Limited, an Isle of Man-based company, hired a lobbyist to promote its online wagering interests.

Money flowed heavily from racetrack interests. Besides the dollars spent by the gaming association, tens of thousands were spent separately during the two months by its member companies that own Yonkers, Monticello, Saratoga, and other upstate tracks with VLT parlors. The state's several off-track betting corporations, looking to either protect existing operations or get a piece of future casino expansion plans by the state, spent $85,000 during the two-month end-of-session period. The state's three Indian tribes with casinos spent $115,000 in May and June.

With two of the first four casinos possible in the Catskills if voters approve the referendum, money from a half-dozen entities with casino development plans in that region pumped in $135,000 to Albany's lobbying industry at the end of session, according to the recently filed records with the state ethics agency.

While a couple major policy fights in Albany over the years spawned huge spending by groups with an interest in an issue, it is rare for a group of special interestsas in the 2013 casino fightto spend so much money without having had a major statewide television advertising campaign to back up their lobbying message.

The New York Racing Association, now a state-controlled corporation under a three-year takeover effort approved last year, reported spending nothing on lobbying during May and June.

While gambling-related interests spent heavily on both lobbying and campaign contributions, there was only one group that dedicated any real time into fighting the casino expansion effort. But the $600 expended during the entire six-month legislative session by the Coalition Against Gambling in New York was not enough to even meet the legal threshold of what New York state requires to be reported as a lobbying expense.

A representative of that group told the Buffalo paper that all the money spent by the gambling industry on lobbying and political donations could backfire and be seen as a negative by residents when they vote this fall.