'For-Profit' Franchise Holder Urged for NYRA

The franchise for the New York Racing Association should be put out to bid and awarded to an entity that will turn the troubled racing group into a for-profit enterprise, the New York state Legislature's top Republican said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, once NYRA's chief ally at the state Capitol, said the franchise award process could help provide the state with needed cash. "Everyone agrees that NYRA ought to go for-profit," Bruno said after a budget negotiation session with Gov. George Pataki and other legislative leaders.

The non-profit NYRA has the franchise to run Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga racetracks through the end of 2007. But Pataki, in his recent state budget proposal, urged that the bidding process be sped up and that a panel be appointed to run the process. His budget office has estimated that the state could charge a future franchise holder an advance payment of $250 million – an amount that would cut out the cash-poor NYRA from holding on to the franchise in its current corporate form.

Bruno did not elaborate on his NYRA for-profit idea. "I think there's revenue there," he said, referring to money that could come the state's way from a future franchise holder.

The Senate majority leader also said the Senate is ready to push through a measure that would encourage the start of video lottery terminal gambling at Aqueduct and Yonkers Raceway. For different reasons, the VLT parlors at the two big downstate tracks have not yet begun – a delay that Bruno said is costing the state $1 billion in revenue a year.

The comments by Bruno came as officials with Friends of New York Racing have been making the rounds at the Capitol during the past week. Sources said they have been pressing for a new VLT bill to help encourage the tracks to get their casinos open.

Tracks have complained that the split they get from VLT proceeds is not enough. NYRA has said its VLT partner, MGM Mirage, needs assurances that it will continue to run the Aqueduct VLT parlor even if NYRA is no longer the franchise holder after 2007.