A key part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan for preventing corruption in the siting of four upstate casinos was dropped from the final bill that state legislators approved last week.
Organizations with a casino license or seeking a license were banned from making state and local political contributions in the governor’s initial casino bill, but Cuomo said on Monday he was forced to give up the provision during negotiations with the state Legislature. Proponents of the restriction say its absence will continue to ensure a steady flow of dollars from gambling interests to politicians.
“New Yorkers can now expect the flood of casino donations we have seen in recent years become a torrent of special interest money designed to influence our elected officials,” said New York Public Interest Research Group research coordinator Bill Mahoney.
There was little fanfare surrounding the ban’s removal from the final bill, with a technical amendment also passed at the end of the session to remove an errant reference to the ban that was left in the final bill. Many people missed the change in the lengthy bill, including Assemblyman John McDonald, D-Cohoes, who supported the outright ban in the original legislation and said in a statement on Monday he wasn’t aware it had been removed.
“I believe this was not an appropriate decision,” McDonald said of the change. “At a time when the public trust is being questioned due to the actions of a small minority of the Legislature, this does nothing to help enhance the image of the Legislature or change the culture that the public finds troubling.”
Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, who opposed the removal of the ban, said more people would have been able to weigh in on this issue if the bill hadn’t been introduced and passed in less than a week.
According to information compiled by good government group Common Cause NY, the gambling industry spent almost $20 million on lobbying and political contributions in New York from 2011 to April 2013. The New York Gaming Association, which represents the state’s nine racinos, including the Saratoga Casino & Raceway, spent $3.6 million.
The New York Gaming Association declined to comment for this story.
Much of the money has been spent on lobbying and contributions to legislative leaders, but some gambling money has reached local legislators and political parties. Since 2010, the Saratoga Casino & Raceway, through various political committees and other means of giving, has contributed at least $2,500 to the Saratoga Springs Republican Committee and at least $3,600 to then-Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga.
Common Cause NY Director Susan Lerner said the missing prohibition and a lack of any significant campaign finance reforms mean gambling interests will continue to spend. And with the upcoming process to win lucrative casino licenses, she said, “We think [political spending] will definitely continue and grow.”
Cuomo stressed that protections still exist to prevent corruption, like disclosure requirements of any spending to influence this fall’s statewide referendum on the constitutional amendment that will allow up to seven non-Indian live-table casinos in the state. The bill also authorizes the creation of a state gaming inspector general’s position.
The governor, who has repeatedly maintained that the siting process shouldn’t be political, said Monday, “We couldn’t work out everything.”
State legislators are not directly involved in the siting process of the four upstate casinos, which will be decided by a board created by the state’s Gaming Commission Board. The Gaming Commission board will have a majority of its members appointed by the governor. State legislators can affect tax rates for casinos when the next three casino licenses are handed out and can influence local support for a casino.
Spokesmen from the Senate Republican and Assembly Democrats did not respond to questions about the provision.
Regarding the proposed ban, state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said it was unnecessary, as a voluntary rejection of gambling money has been under consideration for months and would likely be in place through the entire siting process. He added, “As in any contribution, it is fully disclosed and the public can make up their mind.”
Seward also said the ban was potentially an unconstitutional violation of free-speech rights, echoing a concern raised by one of his Republican colleagues during the only mention of the missing ban during the state Senate’s debate on the bill on Friday.
Mahoney countered that there is leeway for laws that limit contributions in an attempt to reduce corruption. Steck added that there are plenty of examples of businesses or people facing contribution limits if they have some sort of business with the government.
State Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, called the contributions issue “irrelevant,” saying she supported the bill for the economic benefits it will mean for upstate New York.