Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a lot on the line when voters decide Nov. 5 whether to change the state constitution to bring seven Las Vegas-style casinos to New York.
He’s spent three years improving the house’s odds to make it happen — while also collecting more than $242,000 of the $3 million that gambling interests have contributed to state politicians and parties in the last two years alone — as backers have spent $17 million on lobbying.
Cuomo, who sees casinos as his best chance to create jobs upstate and provide the additional $1 billion in revenue he’s wanted to pay for tax cuts and for schools, has had to overcome public opinion split over casino gambling for years. And he has silenced the usual, well-funded opponents, including Indian tribes who operate their own casinos and major casino developers from Atlantic City, Las Vegas and worldwide, including Donald Trump.
That leaves the opposition to groups of conservatives and liberals who say the gamble on casinos comes with the threat of addiction for families and communities, more crime, and what they call taxing the poor who are most vulnerable to gambling’s allure. But they have few resources.
And the pro-casino lobbying group NY Jobs Now may yet mount a multi-million dollar TV ad.
Yet the factor most likely to influence voters, who usually consider a referendum for the first time in the voting booth, is the Cuomo administration’s much-criticized clandestine re-wording of the proposition to promote the disputed tax breaks, jobs and school aid from casinos without mentioning drawbacks cited by the opposition.
That was a major gambit in Cuomo’s campaign for more casinos, which included eventually proposing seven, but ruling out one in Manhattan. That removed a years-old roadblock presented by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has strongly opposed putting a casino in Manhattan because of concern it would hurt the borough’s fabric and a drain on workers and their families.
Cuomo also threatened to compete with Indian casinos, which have operated under federal law for more than a decade. But he eventually sealed a deal that included settling years-old tax and land claims by guaranteeing no new commercial casinos would be built near Indian complexes. That ended the threat from the wealthy tribes.
And Cuomo promised the first four casinos would be built upstate. That put deep-pocketed casino operators including Donald Trump on the sidelines because if they opposed upstate casinos, they’d never get a shot at the real prize: a casino in the outer boroughs.
Cuomo also took the racing industry out of the opposition, saying the operators of seven “racinos” statewide could bid on casinos, or at least be protected from direct competition.
All of this was part of a “closed-door” deal with the Legislature in March 2012 that included removing a prohibition on campaign contributions from gambling interests, leading to the $3 million in donations since then, and millions more expected in coming years.
Page 2 of 3 - Even with the usual well-funded opposition muted, New Yorkers remained mostly split on adding more casinos. A Siena College poll found voters split at 46 percent on casino gambling in general. When they were shown the proposition as it appears on the ballot, approval rose to 55 percent.
That added to the significance of the Cuomo administration rewording what is typically a neutral proposition to make an offer voters may not be able to refuse.
“This process appears rigged,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “The best place to influence voters is in the polling place — which is why you can’t do it. Unless the amendment language is ‘gamed.’”
Last week, a lower court dismissed a lawsuit by Brooklyn lawyer Eric Snyder, ruling it was filed too late despite the fact the changes weren’t made public until after the deadline to sue. The judge never addressed whether the referendum is improper.
The elections board also moved the issue from the bottom of the ballot to the prime No. 1 spot. And even if voters reject casinos, the law adopted by Cuomo and the Legislature triggers construction of video slot machine centers in three upstate sites and one on Long Island.
“That is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the taxpayers of the state of New York,” said state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long. He finds himself in unlikely company with progressive good-government groups and with the editorial boards of several newspapers including The New York Times, which called the referendum “advocacy, pure and simple.”
Judges in other states have struck down such advocacy language “in a heartbeat,” said J. Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research based in Jacksonville, Fla., which has conducted polls and referenda nationwide.
“The more puppies and babies you can put in the question, the more likely they will go with it,” Coker said. “If the ballot language is very favorable, like we see here, that could make the 2 to 3 points needed to put it over the hump.”
Last week, the opposition tried to draw attention by taking a sledge hammer to a slot machine in front of the Capitol.
“It is outrageous to me for them to say that because a problem already exists, we should expand the problem,” said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank opposed to gambling as a regressive tax on the poor. “I would like to know one other problem in the state of New York that we need to have more of, on the grounds that we already have some of it.”
He said the group will hold community and church meetings, college debates and use social media to claim that casinos prey on poor people and will spread gambling addiction through families and businesses.
Page 3 of 3 - “We don’t have money to do TV buys or anything like that,” he said, “but we will use shoe leather tactics.”