NYRA Oversight Panel Has New Chair

A change in leadership adds a new dynamic to the New York franchise talks.

A state government panel in charge of overseeing the New York Racing Association’s finances–and the racing franchise as of Jan. 1, 2008–has a new chairman at a critical moment in the franchise negotiations.

Steven Newman, a former first deputy comptroller in New York City, was named by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, to replace Madelyn Wils to the Non-Profit Racing Oversight Board. Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer then immediately tapped Newman as the group’s new chairman, replacing Carole Stone, who had served in the job for more than a year following her appointment by former Republican Gov. George Pataki.

The appointment of Newman, who could not immediately be reached for comment, puts him in a powerful position as negotiations over the future of the Thoroughbred franchise continue.

With the legislature not expected to return before the second week of January, the oversight board legally takes over racing Jan. 1, the day after NYRA’s current franchise expires.

Republicans had believed Stone might be more sympathetic to their position. Newman, who is tight with Silver, a usual ally of the governor, seems to change that dynamic, though not the overall partisan split on the board.

However, the board chairman was given unusually strong powers the week of Dec. 16. The oversight panel approved a resolution to permit NYRA to continue operating racing Jan. 1 on a temporary basis until the franchise issue is resolved.

It’s the board’s chairman–now Newman–who was given the authority to negotiate a deal with NYRA for the temporary extension. Moreover, if NYRA declines the temporary extension, the board vested its power in the chairman to pick another company to continue running racing.

“Given the importance of that decision, the governor believed it would be best that his appointee have that responsibility, so he would be accountable for any determination that is made in this regard,’’ said Paul Francis, the governor’s budget director who has been involved in the franchise negotiations.

Some officials believe such drama will not occur, and that a handshake deal between Spitzer and legislative leaders will happen before Dec. 31. The sides have held closed-door talks regularly, including Dec. 19. Under the plan being negotiated, NYRA would continue running Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga.

Still on the table is whether other non-racing components will be spun off to other companies, and what future real estate developments might occur on unused land at Aqueduct. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has said he will not give NYRA a 30-year extension, as Spitzer has proposed, and he wants the NYRA board replaced.

“It’s going to be a real compromise–not ours, not theirs,’’ Bruno said Dec. 19 of the talks. He would only say the final deal, if it comes together will involve NYRA and other outside companies being involved in the deal.

A day earlier, Bruno said there is a 50-50 chance a deal can come together before Dec. 31. “Since we’re having conversations that are productive and nobody is walking away saying, ‘Screw you,’ we could announce by the end of the year,’’ he said.

Francis is optimistic. “Many differences have already been resolved, and the governor is hopeful that any remaining issues can be resolved by the end of the year so that a deal can be presented to the legislature in early January that will ensure the continuity of racing in New York,’’ he said.