NY Panel Stymies Chairman's Actions

A panel overseeing New York racing has curbed its chairman's ability to broker deals.

A state government panel overseeing Thoroughbred racing in New York has made it more difficult for its new chairman to broker deals on his own with the New York Racing Association in order to keep racing going temporarily.

The Non-Profit Racing Association Oversight Board adopted a resolution Jan. 22 severely cutting short the power of Steven Newman, the new chairman recently appointed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

"The purpose is to shut him down," said one government source.

Beyond the immediate nature of the move, the panel’s resoluton was been seen as another sign of trouble in the broader franchise negotiations. The panel is run by appointees of top government officials involved in the talks, and the latest power play could represent a setback in the more important, permanent franchise discussions that have been going on for months.

The Republican-dominated board had given its previous chairwoman, Carole Stone, who was appointed by former Gov. George Pataki to the post, broad powers to unilaterally act on the board’s behalf in negotiating deals with NYRA or selecting another entity if NYRA could not or would not keep racing going. The oversight panel has been legally running racing since Jan. 1, a day after the expiration of NYRA’s franchise to run Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga.

But Stone was bounced from her position by Spitzer, a Democrat who then appointed Newman, an ally of Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as chairman. Since his appointment in December, Newman has brokered two temporary extensions to keep NYRA racing while state negotiators try to find a more permanent solution. The most recent deal keeps NYRA in control of racing until Feb. 13.

The panel’s resolution noted a deal might not be in place in three weeks when the extension expires, thereby requiring further action by the board to keep racing going. Instead of giving unilateral power to Newman, the board’s resolution requires that a majority of the board approve any further extensions.

Newman could not be reached for comment, and the Spitzer administration did not immediately respond for comment. The action came the same day Spitzer unveiled his 2008 state budget plan — a document that includes a proposal to open a video lottery terminal casino at Belmont.

The Belmont question has been a major sticking point in the franchise negotiations. The state has already approved a VLT casino for Aqueduct, though construction has been stalled for years.

The GOP-led Senate wants a Belmont casino, but the Democratic-controlled Assembly opposes it. Spitzer has embraced the casino expansion in the past, but backed away recently in the franchise talks, a move most sides saw as a sign the issue would return as part of the state budget talks.

The governor’s plan calls for 4,500 VLTs at Belmont — the same size as Aqueduct’s planned facility. He believes a fee to be paid by a future operator will bring the state $250 million, a figure he put into his fiscal plan to help balance the budget.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno embraced the Belmont addition, but Silver said his chamber still opposes the expansion to Belmont.