EDITORIAL: Put taxpayers, horse industry above casinos

Rivers casino is making plenty of money. It doesn't need more breaks.

New York residents continue to leave the state in large numbers, driven away in large part by the state’s high cost of living and onerous taxes.

So why — as state lawmakers scramble to pass bills during the final days of the 2019 legislative session — is anyone in Albany focused on providing tax breaks and cost savings for casinos?

Changing the rules for casinos to allow them to keep more of the public’s money should be the last thing on lawmakers’ minds. Yet lawmakers are trying to do exactly that.

One bill (A8400/S6562) sponsored by Assemblyman Phil Steck would allow full-service casinos like Rivers in Schenectady to pay half what they currently pay to support the state’s horse-racing industry.

Racinos like Saratoga Casino Hotel, which offer both video gaming and harness racing, would pay the other half.

Under the 2013 agreement that legalized private casinos in the state, the casinos are required to pay 100 percent to the funds.

That 100 percent payment was put into the agreement because the new casinos were expected to draw significant business away from the existing racinos, and by extension take money out of the horse-racing industry. And they have.

To further punish the racino by forcing it to absorb half the horse-racing obligations, in addition to the revenue losses to the casino, adds insult to injury.

Among the reasons cited in the bill for offering the break was that the state’s four casinos have contributed millions for education and local property tax relief. The bill memo also cites competition from the new MGM casino in Springfield, Mass., as a threat to the financial viability of the Rivers casino.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have tried to help the casinos this year.

Earlier in the legislative session, some lawmakers were pushing to lower the tax rate paid by the casinos on slot machines. Competition from the MGM casino was also cited as a justification.

Casino operators knew that the tax rate on slot machines and full payment into the horse-racing funds were part of the price of doing business in New York. 

They shouldn’t cry about it now. 

And it isn’t as if the Rivers casino is being bankrupted by these expenses.

A report issued in April found that gross gaming revenue for the Rivers casino increased 11.5% over the previous fiscal year, up to $157.1 million in 2018-2019. The casino also had its most lucrative month ever in March.

On top of that, ironically, the casino is now allowed to offer off-track betting on horse-racing at track odds. And soon, it will be allowed to offer sports betting.

Does that sound like a business in need of special relief from the state?

These expenses might be cutting into profits. But casino operators went into this arrangement with their eyes wide open. They should be forced to uphold their end of the bargain.

Until someone comes up with a truly compelling reason for relaxing the original financial obligations agreed to by the casinos, lawmakers should keep their focus on those who really do need a break — the taxpayers of the state of New York.

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