Senate Republicans will soon show their cards on casinos in New York.
They’re taking the debate on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan for three upstate casinos out of private meetings and into the public’s eye, with a proposed constitutional amendment for as many as seven live-table, non-Indian casinos. Up to this point, talks have been behind the scenes, with the governor describing them as “preliminary.”
Cuomo has said he wants three upstate casinos, with operators and locations chosen by the state’s Gaming Commission.
During a public cabinet meeting Wednesday, state Director of Operations Howard Glaser read through a laundry list of unresolved issues being discussed in the private meetings about the casino enacting legislation between the governor and legislative leaders. Tax rates, job-creation requirements, local approval of a site, the impact on horse racing and franchise fees were just some of the questions that he said needed to be resolved.
According to state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, the Senate Republicans’ answers will come from state Sen. John Bonacic, an Orange County Republican who is the Senate’s point man on racing issues.
“Bonacic is kicking things off with legislation ... that will outline some positions on behalf of the Senate [Republicans],” Seward said.
Senate Republicans are part of a majority coalition with a handful of breakaway Senate Democrats.
The Senate legislation was still being written Friday, according to Bonacic’s spokesman, Langdon Chapman. He confirmed it called for seven casinos but would not identify specific sites.
“It will provide for a process to award, through the Gaming Commission, the seven licenses,” Chapman said.
Site selection by the Gaming Commission has been a make-or-break issue for Cuomo, but some state legislators have opposed a selection process that leaves out the Legislature. Identifying a plan for all seven sites, though, is a break from the governor’s proposal.
Seward said establishing a clear plan that will make sense to voters is critical for getting approval of the constitutional amendment, which still needs to pass in the Legislature for a second time this year. The amendment passed first in 2012. After the amendment is passed, it would need to be approved in a statewide referendum this year or next in order to take effect.
He said voters won’t approve a constitutional amendment allowing as many as seven casinos if they don’t have a good idea of their location or economic impact.
Seward is on board with Cuomo’s proposal to begin with three casinos.
“I think it would be prudent to ease into this a bit,” he said.
It has been reported that Bonacic’s plan will include an initial phase-in of three upstate casinos, but goes on to identify a timeline for the next four, as well.
A narrow plurality of voters, 49 percent to 44 percent, said they would approve the constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling in the state, according to a Siena Research Institute poll from the middle of April. Also in that poll, 51 percent said they wanted to put the first three casinos in upstate New York.
The Assembly majority, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, has not introduced comprehensive enacting legislation.
A major concern for state legislators in the Capital Region is that any plan for casinos consider the impact on horse racing, both thoroughbred and harness, and on the nine existing sites with electronic gaming, known as racinos, like the Saratoga Casino and Raceway.
Regarding racing, area legislators care about what sort of support casino operators will give breeders, horsemen and purses. The state’s nine racinos contribute to all three, a system that has been credited by proponents of live-table gaming with turning around racing and breeding in the state.
“[Enacting legislation has] to make a carve-out for breeders, horsemen and the racing industry,” said Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville.
“If you don’t provide a mechanism to continue to support ... the horse racing industry in New York, you will see a massive decline, which would be devastating to the 10-county region around Saratoga County,” added Assemblyman Tony Jordan, R-Jackson.
In laying out details last week, Glaser didn’t mention any support for horsemen or racing.
Jordan said he wouldn’t support a plan that would cannibalize the business of the existing racinos, arguing there aren’t infinite gambling dollars.
“There is only so many gaming dollars available,” he said, noting how bingo halls saw a decline in revenue when racinos opened nearby.
State Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said the state can avoid hurting the racinos by evolving them into casinos with live-table games. He highlighted the fact that the state has a shovel-ready option in Saratoga Springs.
State Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, said she is planning to introduce legislation identifying Saratoga County as a site for a casino, a response to Cuomo’s preference for three upstate casinos
Farley, Tedisco, Jordan and Marchione have all backed legislation that would turn all racinos, including Saratoga Casino & Raceway, into full casinos. Jordan described this plan as a conversation starter.
“Does it mean it’s the only way? No,” he said.
That legislation also identified different tax rates, fees and payouts for racing purses and breeders.
On behalf of the governor, Glaser said rates and fees should be part of the selection process, with potential operators floating their own proposals as part of their bids for a casino. The selection body would then take these into consideration.
“I think the state should absolutely set the [tax] rates,” Jordan said. “You don’t leave it up to the bidder to set the rates.”
Tedisco said the tax rate should be somewhere between the two current extremes in the country — Las Vegas casino taxes are less than 7 percent of revenue and New York’s racinos are taxed at nearly 70 percent.
Most local state legislators also say communities should have input into whether they’re getting a casino. Tedisco wants at least “veto power” for a local government, but prefers a community referendum.
Regardless of the plan that is advanced, Tedisco said it shouldn’t be rushed through the state Legislature, which he called a trademark of Cuomo’s administration with controversial legislation.
“If we get this in the middle of the night again, it should be a non-starter,” Tedisco said.