New York Franchise a War of Words

The Assembly Speaker blames Sen. Joseph Bruno for delays in the franchise process.

The temporary extension given to the New York Racing Association to operate Aqueduct has allowed government officials to boost the rhetorical wars against each other over the failure to devise a long-term franchise deal.

After weeks of pounding by Republicans, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver charged that Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno is to blame for the lack of progress. Silver said a deal could have been made in August if the senator was serious about resolving the matter.

After Bruno questioned Silver’s leadership abilities, it was the Manhattan Democrat’s turn on Jan. 3. He said if Bruno had “cooperated” with the Assembly and Gov. Eliot Spitzer during the summer, the current scenario for New York’s Thoroughbred racing franchise would have been avoided.

Silver also accused Bruno of trying to keep intact two current state government regulatory panels that are dominated by Republicans appointed by the previous governor, George Pataki. And he said Bruno’s franchise plan calls for driving some proceeds from a video lottery terminal casino at Aqueduct — along with one the senator wants at Belmont Park — to Republican-led towns and schools in the districts of Bruno’s fellow GOP lawmakers.

“How do you respond to something that’s not true?” Bruno spokesman John McArdle said of Silver's charges. He accused Silver of “trying to recreate history and to defer attention from the fact that he has been the obstacle to racing and other things these past several months.”

McArdle said the Senate plan envisions local communities having an advisory role in future developments, such as real estate dealings, at the racetracks. There is no revenue-sharing deal for local communities, he said.

“He’s not telling the truth,” McArdle said of Silver. He said Assembly negotiators also “blew off” a closed-door meeting Jan. 2 to try to resolve differences between the sides.

The negotiators were back at it again Jan. 3, though no progress was reported. Instead, it was mostly a session to review where talks left off in late December.

The renewed sniping led to two schools of thought at the Capitol. Some insiders said it will further distract the sides and thereby delay a final deal. Others, though, said state officials have a long tradition of personal attacks in the period before major deals are made.

NYRA is operating under a temporary extension until Jan. 23. Whether a final franchise deal comes together before then is unclear, but few would be surprised if the whole matter gets put off and included as part of state budget talks in the spring.

Silver again voiced his opposition to a VLT casino at Belmont. Aqueduct in 2001 was approved for a casino development, but a host of factors has kept the facility from being built.

“Belmont VLTs are the least important issue in this state,” Silver said.

Silver said the “case has not been made” that a casino in Belmont would work. He said having another casino so close to Aqueduct’s future facility would saturate the market. He also dismissed estimates that the casinos would generate $400 or more per machine in daily revenue.

Still on the table is the length of the franchise, which Spitzer and Silver want at 30 years; Bruno has pushed for a shorter period. Also, to what extent the NYRA board will be “reconstituted” remains an issue.