NYPIRG: NYers Are Entitled To A ‘Neutral’ Casino Ballot Proposal

As promised, the New York Public Interest Research Group has submitted an amicus (friend of the court) brief in support of the lawsuit that challenges the wording of the ballot proposal on casino expansion that voters will be asked to decide on Election Day next month.

NYPIRG is careful to point out in its brief that it does not have a formal position on whether voters should support or reject the constitutional amendment that would allow up to seven non-Indian run casinos to be built across upstate.

But the good government organization does take issue with the wording of the proposal that was tweaked by the Cuomo administration to cast casino expansion in the best possible light and then subsequently approved by the state Board of Elections in a meeting that was not public.

NYPIRG says it is “deeply troubled” by the wording, which “seems to go beyond explanatory or descriptive and trespass into advocacy” by highlighting all the potential benefits of more gaming in New York – lower property taxes, more education aid and job creation – but makes no mention of any of the downsides, like an increase in gambling addiction.

“Simply put, NYPIRG believes that New Yorkers are entitled to a neutral ballot proposal – not one which subtly or overtly nudges a voter in a particular direction,” the brief states.

The case, brought by Brooklyn attorney Eric Snyder, is due in court for a hearing at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow in Albany. The case will be heard by acting state Supreme Court Justice Richard Platkin, who happens to be a former counsel to ex-Gov. George Pataki.

NYPIRG amicus brief submitted in opposition to casino amendment wording by liz_benjamin6490

Who Is Getting The Most From Gambling Interests?

Gambling interests have contributed a cominbed $3.2 million to political candidates and committees since 2011, an analysis from Common Cause released this morning found.

The report shows the political campaign committees for the Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans were the top recipients of the gambling interests largesse, receiving $414,750 and $403,750 respectively.

Third on the list was the gubernatorial campaign of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who first pushed for the amendment to expand casino gambling in New York beyond American Indian tribes in 2012. He has received $361,500 from the gambling industry since 2011, the report found.

Also on the list are the lawmakers who lead the legislative committes on racing and wagering, Sen. John Bonacic ($84,836) and Assemblyman Gary Pretlow ($64,659).

The top benefactors include the New York Gaming Association, a consortium that has contributed $543,051. The Seneca Nation, which inked a revenue sharing and exclusivity contract with the state this year, contributed $525,650.

The money from casino and gambling interests is coming to the forefront as a new political action committee of business leaders, unions and politicians begins a push for the casino amendment. The committee, New York Jobs Now, is registered as a ballot referendum committee that can raise unlimited amounts of cash.

Language that would have prohibited gaming companies seeking to build casinos in the state from contributing to political campaigns and candidates was removed this year from the enabling legislation approved this year by the Legislature. Officials said the language was constitutionally questionable.

“New York’s lax campaign finance laws make it possible for high rollers, like the gambling industry, to dictate public policy. The problem is that the rules of the game are stacked against average voters and the house always wins. We need campaign finance reform now to ensure that politicians are accountable to the people, not the highest pay-out,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.

If voters next month approve the amendment, four casinos would be built in the first wave of construction. The casinos would be restricted to three regions: The Catskills, the Albany area and the Southern Tier.

Here’s a chart for reference:


Full-Court Casino Press

From the morning memo:

There is just over a month to go before New Yorkers decide whether to expand casino gambling in New York and allow non-American Indian developers to build facilities in three different regions of the state.

It is one of the more controversial amendments to be put before voters in recent years.

Unlike, say, changes to how the state budget is put together, some voters are truly ambivalent over whether expanding gambling in the state is a net positive, given some of the less savory social ills that come with it.

The Cuomo administration does not seem to be leaving much to chance this month.

First this week came the unveiling of the umbrella group NY Jobs Now, a coalition of unions, business leaders and elected officials who back the amendment.

Left unsaid in its announcement on Monday was what the group actually is: A political referendum committee registered with the state Board of Elections that can raise unlimited amounts of cash to pursue its agenda.

As we noted on the blog yesterday, the group’s committee isn’t the only one out there backing the amendment. Given how much money is at stake with the approval of casino gambling, it’s very possible a large amount of cash will be raised.

The committee is the all the more eyebrow-raising given that Pat Barrett, who is listed as being a member of NY Jobs Now, is also on the governor’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, which is investigating the state’s campaign-finance laws.

Barrett told The Daily News, which broke that story, that he would recuse himself from any casino-related matters.

The argument for the casino expansion from the administration continued on Wednesday, when the state Division of Budget released an analysis showing that $430 million in revenue would be reaped from the construction of four casinos in the first phase.

The budget office also pointed to the benefits the revenue would have on property tax bills, along with school and local government aid — something of a long-form version (with numbers) of the referendum language voters will see in November.

Coupled with the agreements made with the state’s Indian tribes to share revenue and gain exclusivity rights for their casinos, the deck is being staked in favor of the amendment: A committee with the potential to raise funds quickly, a numbered analysis of the benefits and language that paints a glowing picture of expansion.

No Contribution Limits For Casino Committee

The coalition backing the casino expansion amendment called NY Jobs Now has registered as a political referendum committee with the state Board of Elections — a distinction that comes with disclosure, but no contribution limits.

The committee, which includes elected officials, labor leaders and even a former football star, was formed by the executive leadership of the state Business Council.

J. Patrick Barrett, counted among the members of the casino coalition, is also a member of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Moreland Commission, which is investigating campaign finance laws, The Daily News first reported.

Unlike a committee backing a specific candidate, a ballot referendum committee doesn’t adhere to limits on contributions, making them closer to housekeeping or “soft money” accounts.

“That’s pretty well established by the courts that there are no contributions limits,” said NYPIRG’s Bill Mahoney. “It’s no surprise that the casino issue will draw a lot of special interest money.”

It’s also not the only committee formed in response to the casino expansion proposal. A group called Citizens for NYS Gaming, Inc., has also signed on to advocate for the casino amendment, according to this BOE filing.

The BOE’s website on contribution limits itself says, “There are no limits on contributions for ballot issues.”

Such a committee comes after efforts this year to overhaul the state’s campaign-finance laws failed in the Legislature.

Supporting a referedum through a specific committee is rare, but it isn’t unusual.

Referendum committes were created in response to the Silver-Bruno budget reform amendment in 2005, the last time a controversial constitutional amendment was put before voters.

But unlike previous proposals to change to the state’s constitution, a lot more money is on the line this time around with the casino referendum, and its passage means the opening of a lucrative market for the gambling industry.

Though the group’s members have strong ties to Cuomo it indicated it will work with “any elected official” that supports the casino referendum.

Coalition Created To Back Casino Amendment

A coalition of business interests along with private and public sector unions have formed a coalition to back the amendment to expand non-Indian casinos.

The group, called NY Jobs Now, includes Heather Bricetti, the president and CEO of the state Business Council, along with labor leaders like the AFL-CIO’s Mario Cilento, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, Gary LaBarbera of Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson.

Thurman Thomas, the former Buffalo Bills running back, is also on part of the coalition, along with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Broadly, the coalition is composed of allies of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who pushed the passage of the amendment through the Legislature, along with enabling legislation this year that would allow for up to four casinos north of the New York City area in the first phase of the construction.

The composition is also some ways reminiscent of the now-defunct Committee to Save New York, the pro-business group that backed the governor’s fiscal agenda during his first two years in office, though no elected officials were counted among its members.

“New Yorkers spend more than three billion dollars a year at destination casinos in other states. It’s about time we bring that kind of money home to create jobs, support schools, and take property tax pressure off towns and cities,” Briccetti said in a statement.

The casinos would be limited to the Southern Tier, the Catskills and the Capital Region during the first round in order to adhere to new exclusivity and revenue agreements Cuomo struck with the state’s American Indian tribes.

The formation of the coalition, nearly a month before voters are due to consider the amendment, comes as a Siena College poll found a majority of voters would vote in favor the casino expansion based on the rather favorable wording on the ballot that touts economic development, property tax relief and education spending as upsides.

The state’s Catholic Bishops on Sunday released a statement expressing concern with the expansion of gambling in New York under the amendment.

It is unclear how the group’s support will manifest itself, though it is likely advertisements and other promotions will be committed to the effort.

The full roster of NY Jobs Now is after the jump. More >

Siena: Cuomo Under 50 Percent; Pro-Casino Ballot Wording Works

Today’s Siena poll is a mixed bag for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, bringing him good news about the constitutional amendment on casino gambling (not to mention his manipulation of the ballot amendment wording on the subject), but bad news about his own job approval and favorability ratings.

For the first time ever, Cuomo’s job performance rating has slipped just below the magic 50 percent number – a development that comes as he prepares to seek re-election next fall.

Cuomo saw a slight drop in his favorability rating, a small drop in his “re-elect” number, and a small drop in his job performance rating, bringing him to his lowest level – 49-50, down from 52-46 percent in August – since he took office in January 2011.

The governor is viewed favorably by 64 percent of voters and unfavorably by 32 percent (down slightly from 65-30 percent in August).

He has a 49-50 percent job performance rating (down from 52-46 in August).

Fifty-two percent say they are prepared to re-elect him, while 39 percent would prefer someone else (down from 55-35 percent last month).

Cuomo is still doing well (60 percent) among Democrats and New York City voters are prepared to re-elect him, but a plurality of Republicans and independents and a majority of upstaters say they’d prefer someone else in the executive mansion.

When it comings to casino gambling, New Yorkers remain evenly divided at 46-46, down from 49-42 last month, on whether to allow the expansion of non-Indian run gaming facilities across the state.

But, when given the specific wording of the amendment on the ballot in November, which plays up the job growth and property tax reduction possibilities of more gambling, voters changed their tune.

Fifty-five percent said they would vote “yes” on that amendment, compared to 42 percent who said they would not.

“Clearly, the wording on the ballot for the casino amendment matters,” Siena pollster Steve Greenberg concluded.

Also, a small majority of voters said they think the amendment is fairly worded, although that depends in part on whether the voters were pro or anti-casino expansion in the first place.

For the first time in nearly two years, more New Yorkers (46-43) believe the state is heading in the wrong direction than those who believe we’re on the right course.

On the controversial question of fracking, the largest plurality ever in a Siena poll has said “no” to the natural gas drilling technique, with 45 percent opposed and 37 percent in favor.

Heading into the 2014-15 budget season, voters say by a 53-41 percent margin they would rather see an increase in state spending in areas such as education than a broad-based tax cut.

However, three-quarters of voters believe a state income tax cut in next year’s budget is at least somewhat important.

And last but not least, some not-so-fabulous news for former Gov. Eliot Spitzer if he was perhaps mulling another comeback attempt – maybe a run at state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli? – after he failed NYC comptroller bid this fall.

At least 62 percent of voters from every region of the state and every party agree that Spitzer should leave his political aspirations on the shelf next year and refrain from seeking statewide office, although he does continue to have a reservoir of support (more than 40 percent) among black and Latino voters.

Siena poll, Sept. 30 by embenjamin2001

Seneca Nation Eyes Rochester-Area Casino

The Seneca Nation of Indians is considering a Rochester-area casino in the town of Henrietta — a gaming and hotel facility that comes just after the state agreed to a new revenue-sharing plan with the tribe.

It is likely the expansion could require new legislation, since it is beyond the Senecas current three-casino franchise, but lies within its exclusivity zone.

The Cuomo administration and the Seneca Nation settled a long-standing dispute that resulted in the tribe agreeing to send some of its revenue held in a trust to the state, while New York officials agreed to respect the exclusivity zone as it seeks to build commercially run casinos.

A constitutional referendum due before voters this year would allow for an expansion of casino gambling in New York to include non-Indian table-top gaming.

So-called “enabling” legislation provides for up to four casinos in the first phase of construction with zones limited to the Catskills, the Albany area and the Southern Tier.

The Seneca Nation announced today it has retained Flaum Rochester LLC, part of Flaum Management Company in Rochester to organize and coordinate the development with local officials.

“The Seneca Nation is interested in looking for opportunities to grow and complement our gaming operations, consistent with our contractual restrictions under the SGC’s current financing,” said Seneca Nation President Barry E. Snyder, Sr in a statement released today. “David Flaum and his team have a proven track record and we see this as a good fit.”

Why Was The Ban On Casino Contributions Removed?

State lawmakers approved the expansion of casino gambling last week with enabling legislation that provides and the second passage of a constitutional amendment that now goes to voters in a referendum.

Not approved, but what was originally proposed, was a ban on casino interests that have submitted licenses to build and operate and some of their employees from giving money to political candidates’ campaigns.

How convenient for lawmakers and casino operators!

Indeed, it’s something of an inverse of the old Captain Renault quote from “Casablanca” — I’m shocked, SHOCKED, politicians would be eager to receive money from casino interests.

But why was the language somewhat quietly removed?

The post-mortem is in this afternoon with three varying theories.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had initially sought the ban, said this afternoon in Rochester an agreement on a prohibition couldn’t be worked out.

“We couldn’t work out everything,” Cuomo said. “Some things we couldn’t come to terms with. Any casino or gaming interest that contributes money to the referendum campaign will be disclosed and any political donation that any casino interest makes to a politician that will be disclosed so there will be disclosure on everything.”

Any money contributed for or against the referendum effort as an independent expenditure has to be reported to the state’s gaming commission, according to the bill.

Sen. John Bonacic, the chairman of Senate Committee on Racing, Wagering and Gaming has a different explanation, namely that such a ban runs afoul of constitutional issues.

“When you start trying to limit political contributions you run into constitutional problems,” Bonacic said on the Senate floor Friday night as the bill was being debated. “So you know when you talk of corruption that depends on the integrity of the people you’re dealing with. There are positives and negatives when you talk about gaming… we try to provide to offset the negatives with host fees and other economic relief. You do this balancing of scale test and you weigh the positives and the negatives. That’s the purpose of the referendum. Let the people decide.”

And what say you, NYPIRG researcher Bill Mahoney?

“I don’t know why they decided to take this ban out.”

Well, that’s no help, Bill, geez! Hmm, let’s ask this question a different way: If there’s no ban on contributions from companies who are in the business of building casinos, what might happen?

“By taking this ban out, they basically created a whole new class of special interest money,” Mahoney said. “Casinos have always given to some degree, but once they have a physical presence in this state the money will just explode and legislators going forward will get a lot of money from them. I’m sure there will be some scandals.”

That Ban On Political Donations From Casino Operators? It’s Gone

Oh ho ho!

Language that would have prohibited casino operators seeking licenses in New York and some of their employees from donating to political candidates appears to have been deleted from the final versions of the bill that passed the Assembly today and will be considered by the Senate this evening.

NYPIRG researcher Bill Mahoney pointed out this evening that language from the 200-page plus bill for the so-called enabling legislation expand casino gambling in New York that would have blocked political contributions from casino interests seeking to build in New York to candidates was quietly removed.

The bill specifically lays out the ban on page 136 of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s program bill:

“Any person or business entity applying for or holding a 17 license, any affiliated entities or persons of such business 18 entity, and any entities or persons soliciting a contribution or 19 causing a contribution to be made on behalf of such person or 20 business entity, are prohibited from making any contribution to 21 any officeholder or declared candidate or any political 22 committee affiliated with any officeholder or declared 23 candidate.

The chapter amendment to the bill removed the prohibition as noted by Hinman Straub’s generally excellent policy blog.

Removing the ban as it appears will likely open a floodgate of political contributions from casino operators and other well-heeled gambling interests should voters grant final passage of a constitutional referendum to expand non-Indian casinos this fall.

Gaming Commission Backs Casino Bill

A tax parity addition to the casino expansion legislation led to the state’s top lobbying organization for racinos to back the measure, reversing its earlier skepticism over the plan.

The New York Gaming Association, which represents the state’s nine racinos, announced its backing of the casino bill, declaring it would throw its “full support” behind the expansion and the November referendum for a constitutional amendment.

The lack of opposition from the Gaming Association is key, considering that it has the resources to back an opposition campaign to the referendum.

At issue for the racinos was the concern the original proposal would have given a competitive advantage to the casinos, which are due to be constructed north of the New York City area in the first round.

The enabling legislation calls for up to four casinos in the first round of construction.

At the same time, agreements were put in place to allow western New York racetrack racinos to become full-blown casinos after agreements on revenue sharing and exclusivity were reached with the state’s Indian tribes.

“The inclusion of competitive tax parity, a plan that keeps the three Western New York racetrack casinos as vital partners to state and localities, and the assurance that our two successful downstate partners can continue providing good paying jobs and generating significant funding for schools are significant improvements from earlier drafts of this bill and critical to our support,” said Association President James Featherstonhaugh in a statement.