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Senator Pushes for More Casinos in New York

State lawmaker wants more than seven the facilities currently under consideration.

An influential New York lawmaker is opening the door to permitting more casinos in the state than the maximum of seven facilities being eyed by the governor and the Legislature as part of a move to amend the state's constitution.

Sen. John Bonacic, a Republican who heads the Senate's racing and wagering committee, told a Saratoga Springs audience of lawyers and gambling industry executives that he is concerned the metropolitan New York City area could get more than one casino in upcoming negotiations. That, he said, will hurt other economically battered regions of the state.

The Legislature earlier this year approved first passage (with two required) of a constitutional amendment to permit up to seven full-scale, Las Vegas-style casinos on non-Indian lands. But Bonacic said the understanding in talks earlier this year was that only one of the seven would be permitted in New York City, and now there is talk among some officials of several locations within the city.

Appearing at the annual Albany Law School racing and gambling symposium Aug. 15 in Saratoga, Bonacic said the Legislature could return later this year to change the resolution adopted last spring to instead permit as many as 10 casinos.

"I don't want to see other regions lose an economic opportunity to compete," Bonacic said in an interview in response to some efforts to allow multiple casinos in New York City. Bonacic represents the southern Catskills region, which has been trying for decades to get casino gambling.

But Bonacic's idea appears too late for this year, according to several lawyers attending the Saratoga event. Two attorneys said a resolution to change the constitution must be passed by the Legislature 90 days before the November election day this year−a period that has already come and gone. To amend the constitution, two successive sessions of the Legislature must approve a resolution, which then goes before voters statewide.

Another lawyer, though, said lawmakers would have until Nov. 1 to pass a new casino resolution that meets the legal deadlines for amending the constitution. That, too, appears extremely unlikely, given that lawmakers would be reluctant to hold a potentially controversial vote so close to election day.

Still, the concerns raised by Bonacic show the potential problems for negotiators next year. Beyond identifying the maximum number of casinos permitted, the constitutional amendment is vague. The details, such as geographic locations, will be part of a separate piece of enabling legislation next year in talks between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature.

If the Legislature approves a second passage next year, the matter could go to voters in November 2013. But Bonacic said the statewide referendum could also be delayed until 2014.

"It's a very difficult process next year," Bonacic said of gambling negotiations that will attract opposition from Atlantic City, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Las Vegas, Canada, and other jurisdictions with existing casino facilities worried about new competition in New York state. Of the casino expansion effort, the lawmaker said, there is "big money coming in to try to kill it."

Current New York law permits only full-scale casinos on Indian reservations. Bonacic said he doubts, based on meetings with federal officials, that other Indian tribes in New York will be given approval for additional casinos.

Bonacic, who will have a seat at the casino negotiating table next year, said the talks must include ways to try to protect existing racetrack-based casino facilities.

James Featherstonhaugh, president of the New York Gaming Association, said the first goal of the negotiations should be to protect racinos, which are poised by 2014 to bring $1 billion a year to New York state's coffers in mandatory revenue-sharing payments. "Do no harm," he urged.

Asked by an audience member if the casino talks will also seek to protect horse owners and breeders from financial harm, Bonacic said, "I will try."

Cuomo has personally assured Bonacic, the lawmaker said, that he is serious about pushing for the casino expansion effort next year, and that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is very much on board with the efforts.

"The stars have never been better aligned," Bonacic said.