NY’s Big Bet: The Indian Agreements

Here is part three our of series on the amendment to expand casino gambling in New York. The full series can be found here, along with excerpts and interviews from our reporting.

If Las Vegas style casinos come to New York, it will be in no small part because of a series of complex deals struck by Governor Andrew Cuomo with the state’s Indian tribes that shared revenue from their own casinos and created exclusivity zones around their lands. Most importantly for Cuomo, the deals neutralized what could have been an effective campaign to dissuade voters from approving the measure.

“Moving that issue allowed us, generated the energy if you will to settle all the Indian tribe discussions that had been going on for years and as you know, we literally settled all of the issues with Native Americans,” Cuomo said.

As Cuomo tells it, the long standing disputes with Seneca, Oneida and St. Regis Mohawk Indian nations wouldn’t have been resolved without first pushing to expand casino gaming in New York to allow non-Indian commercial operators in on the action.

Cuomo said, “If we hadn’t moved the casino issue, we would have the energy to settle the Indian issue, which was hundreds of millions of dollars to the state.”

But the agreements also sidelined what could have been an effective campaign to oppose casino gambling. Indeed, the Oneida Indian Nation is actually helping the pro-casino campaign New York Jobs Now. Board of Elections records show the tribe contributed $50,000 to the effort.

“This is a success for not just the Oneida people. It’s a win for central New York and a win for the state,” said Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter.

That’s Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter in May touting his agreement with the state, which sets aside the Central New York region as an exclusivity zone so a commercial casino won’t compete with Turning Stone Resort, which the tribe operates. In exchange, the state and local governments will get a share of the casino revenue.

Similar agreements were struck with the Seneca Nation in Western New York and the Mohawk in the North Country. That means only three zones north of New York City are eligible for casino development: The Catskills, the Albany area and the Southern Tier. But not everyone is convinced the state’s Indian tribes got the best deal.
“There’s no question there will not be these grandiose state run casinos put within the exclusivity zones that the native territories are paying for. The problem is the Senecas and the Oneidas already have these racetrack casinos already in the exclusivity zones and there’s no language that those won’t expand,” said John Kane, host of “Let’s Talk Native.”

Kane is the host of “Let’s Talk Native,” a radio show that focuses on current affairs within the state’s American Indian tribes. He doesn’t think the tribes got the best deal they possibly could, upsetting rank and file tribal members who benefit from the revenue of the Indian-run casinos.

“When that deal was finally inked, $340 million left Western New York and went to Albany and not much of it’s coming back,” Kane said.

Agreements struck earlier this year apply to the five Indian run casinos that operate across Upstate New York. Under the agreements, revenue, for the first time, will be shared with the surrounding local and county governments, as well as with the state. Kane is skeptical, however, that the local communities near Indian-run casinos will see any benefit from the amendment passing.

Kane said, “Most people are not going to see a casino come into their area. So most people aren’t going to see any benefit or the alleged benefit that a casino is going to bring. ”

Still, casino supporters say the money generated by gaming will benefit communities across the state, even those in the exclusivity zones.

“So those schools like the City of Rochester and other urban centers that have high needs will get a larger share will get a larger share because they already getting a larger share of the economic resources that go to schools in this state,” said Assemblyman Joe Morelle.

And even if the amendment is voted down, the revenue sharing and exclusivity agreements approved between state government and the Indian tribes remain in place.

Casinos Unite Disparate Opposition

They might not have the money or political juice to fund a statewide campaign, but the opposition to the casino expansion amendment does have the unique quirk of uniting figures normally in opposition to one another.

Sen. Liz Krueger’s office earlier today sent out an advisory for a news conference at City Hall in Manhattan tomorrow at noon that will include Sen. Kevin Parker, Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, environmental advocate Ramsey Adams, Brooklyn attorney Eric Snyder and Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long.

Now, it is extremely rare for Long and the rest of the Democratic lawmakers attending — especially O’Donnell —  to agree on something.

But the state Conservative Party has been rather vocal in its opposition to proposition one, which would authorize the construction of seven commercially operated casinos in the state.

“The coalition will also unveil new campaign literature opposing the amendment, which will be distributed to voters in an extensive campaign at subway stations and polling sites,” according to the advisory. “It will also highlight the “trick” the referendum is playing on voters with slanted language, as well as the strong possibility that passage of the amendment could lead to authorization of several New York City casinos.”

To be fair, backing casinos has united candidates across party lines. Notably, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and Democratic opponent Tom Suozzi appeared together in a joint news conference promoting the issue.

Tonight we’ll be presenting part three of our series, New York’s Big Bet by taking a look at the agreements between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s Indian tribes that effectively neutralized their opposition to the amendment.

Cuomo’s Hyper-Local Prop. 1 Strategy

A reader forwarded this fascinating mailer being sent out by Elliott Auerbach, a Democrat who is seeking re-election to his post as Ulster County comptroller on Nov. 5, that prominently features both an endorsement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo on one side AND a plug for the casino expansion amendment, Prop. 1, on the other.

Cuomo, as you’ll recall, is generally pretty judicious with his endorsements, preferring to hand them out only in instances of 1) political expedience (like, say, the tight race for Westchester County executive where he would personally benefit from the defeat of incumbent Republican Rob Astorino, who has been mentioned as a potential future gubernatorial contender); or 2) almost certain victory by his preferred candidate; or 3) when his nod is highly likely to make the difference between victory and defeat in the 11th hour of a campaign.

But this campaign season, the governor has been handing out endorsements left and right in local races, backing everyone from county executive candidates to local legislators and even – as this mailer demonstrates – comptrollers.

Cleary, Team Cuomo sees these local races as an opportunity to reach voters in an “off” election year on what has become Cuomo’s signature issue in this cycle. The governor has linked himself so personally to the outcome of the Prop. 1 vote that a loss would be very embarrassing indeed.

In Auerbach’s case, there’s an added incentive for Cuomo to get involved: The comptroller hails from Ellenville, which is home to the former Nevele Hotel – a site expected to be a top contender for a casino should Prop. 1 pass muster with the voters on Election Day.

And Auerbach isn’t the only local candidate getting this sort of treatment. A reader from Westchester County says a county legislator has campaign literature that touts an endorsement from Cuomo and twin pro-Prop. 1 banners. The state Democratic Party reportedly paid for the lit.



NY’s Big Bet: The Money Behind The Casino Campaign

Here is part two of our series on the proposal to expand casino gambling in New York. The first part of New York’s Big Bet can be found here, along with exceprts and extended interviews from our reporting.

The argument for casino gambling is coming through the air and in the mail box, an extensive $2 million campaign to persuade voters to approve the amendment that would authorize commercial casino construction in New York.

“You’re going to see the full array of campaign message techniques. There’s going to be some mail, some television, some phone canvassing, door-to-door, you’re going to see the full array of election techniques,” said Heather Briccetti, the president of the state Business Council.

The ads barely mention the word casino and never the word “gambling.” Funding the campaign are a variety of casino companies and gambling interests, working through a coalition called NY Jobs Now.

Contributors include:

  • •$500,000 from Yonkers Racing Corporation
  • •$250,000 from Saratoga Harness Racing
  • •$125,000 from Empire Resorts
  • •$500,000 from Genting New York

And even labor unions are getting involved:

  • •$250,000 from United Federation of Teachers
  • •$225,000 from Carpenters Fund

The list of those opposing the amendment includes the state Conservative Party, religious groups like the Catholic Church and people worried about problem gambling. But so far, they have not been able to put out any ads.

“We cannot go out and buy advertising space, but in a sense, the state has already bought advertising, they’ve put it on the ballot,” said Stephen Shafter, Coalition Against Gambling in New York.

When New Yorkers vote next week, they will see this proposal on the ballot, “The purpose of the proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the Constitution is to allow the Legislature to authorize and regulate up to seven casinos for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.”

The language is cause for concern among the state’s good-government organizations. Though the New York Public Interest Research Group hasn’t taken a position on the amendment, they find the ballot language troubling.

“You expected them to add and give everyone a pony. I mean, it was definitely slanted in one direction,” said Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s legislative director.

The ballot language that was originally proposed came from the state attorney general’s office. But that wording was then replaced by the state Board of Elections. A last minute lawsuit challenging the language was tossed out of court by a state Supreme Court judge.

For amendment supporters, the language accurately spells out the consequences of expanding casino gaming.

“We are not just opening the door and saying go for it casino gambling companies, go have fun. We’re saying you can come in, the revenue that we generate for the state we’re going to build for these purposes,” Briccetti said.

And lawmakers in support of the amendment believe it won’t have that much impact on voters.

“Those who support gaming will know to vote yes and those who have concerns and oppose it will vote no. So I don’t think it’s going to hide from anyone and those who generally have a feeling will vote one way,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle.

Casino supporters also point to previous ballot propositions, like the Transportation Bond Act, that included supportive language.

“The Transportation Bond Act authorized $2.9 billion in state debt. If you asked the voters to authorize $2.9 billion in state debt and not say what it was for, I think it would get voted down,” Briccetti said.

But Horner remains skeptical the wording is meant to simply inform voters.

“I learned a long time ago that two wrongs don’t make a right. And just because in the past someone got away with putting their thumb on the scale in support of a Transportation Bond Act which is spending money and it’s not a little thing, but it’s not changing the state constitution though. We believe this should be held to the highest standard and we believe that is not what happened here,” Horner said.

And while the campaign to support the amendment has been expensive, passage could open the floodgate for even more political spending.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year proposed enabling legislation that would authorize up to four casinos in the first phase of construction. Cuomo included a ban on campaign donations from casino companies seeking lucrative licenses with the state.

Lawmakers quietly removed that ban before approving the bill. Their argument? Doing so would violate campaign contributors constitutionally guaranteed free speech. But some lawmakers are skeptical and fear the lack of a ban will only give rise to more corruption.

“State after state, country after country there has been an association between political giving, gambling and corruption,” said State Senator Liz Krueger.

‘All In For Jobs’ Makes Its Casino Case


The dominate, big-money player in the pro-casino campaign has been New York Jobs Now, a coalition of business and labor groups that is pushing the amendment through a $2 million-plus ad campaign.

But another group making a strikingly similar argument for the casino amendment is All In For Jobs, a labor-backed entity that references casinos and gambling even less than New York Jobs Now.

As we’ve noted before, the mail campaign from Jobs Now doesn’t feature any casino imagery and mentions the word three times in 190 or so words on the mailer.

The website for All In For Jobs takes a similar tact.

The site — a screengrab is above — even euphemistically refers to casinos as “resort gaming.”

A radio ad was also heard on Fred Dicker’s Talk-1300 radio show this morning.

All in all, the pro-casino campaign is huing rather closely to the ballot language voters will have before them next week: Namely that the casino amendment will create  jobs, lower property taxes and provide for school aid, a contention that opponents say is wrong and good-government groups cringe at.

The group is yet to file campaign reports with the state Board of Elections, but 24-hour notices show it has received $250,000 from the New York State Laborers Organizing Fund.

Tonight we will air part two of our series on the casino amendment, which will take a look at the campaign to promote the amendment and who is behind it.

State Independence Party Mails On Prop. 1 (Updated)

A reader forwarded this letter from state Independence Party Chairman Frank MacKay, announcing the unanimous passage by his executive committee of a resolution calling for the party to advocate in favor of passing Prop. 1 – the ballot amendment that would allow construction of up to seven non-Indian run casinos in New York.


“The economic benefits of job creation and tourism that will be realized were important factors in passing this resolution by our party’s leadership,” MacKay wrote. “In addition, the fact that New Yorkers are spending billions of dollars at out of state casinos, when that money could be staying here to generate much needed tax revenue was also a big reason that this resolution came forward.”

Those comments are right in line with the pro-Prop. 1 campaign launched by NY Jobs Now, which is being guided by the Cuomo administration. The governor has made it clear that he is heavily and very personally invested in the passage of this amendment, and it should come as no big surprise that MacKay – a longtime Cuomo ally – has been enlisted to assist with this effort.

UPDATE: MacKay released a copy of this letter to the media today (Oct. 30 – one day after I posted it), and said it had been sent to all endorsed Independence Party candidates, seeking to enlist them in the pro-Prop. 1 cause.

NY’s Big Bet: The Economic Impact

Part one of our series on the proposal to expand casino gambling in New York:

Supporters of bringing commercial casinos to New York State don’t want voters to think of slot machines, black jack tables, or roulette wheels. They want voters to think about jobs and schools.

“We’re talking about $4 million into the Ulster County economy. Not just to help offset our property tax burdens, but to simultaneously help our schools systems as well, every single year,” said Ulster County Executive Mike Hein.

On November 5, voters will consider an amendment that would expand casino gambling in New York. In the first phase of construction, four casinos are slated to be built north of New York City. Due to of deals struck with the state’s Indian tribes, the potential casinos will be limited to the Southern Tier, the Albany area and the Catskills.

The hope for Governor Andrew Cuomo is to draw tourists further upstate, rather than New York City.

“The question is not whether should we go there or not,” Cuomo said. “We’re there. The question is should we regulate them better, maximize the resources, create jobs in upstate New York by attracting and marketing 50 million tourists in New York City up north.”

Cuomo’s administration has been active in providing statistics on what casino expansion would mean for the state’s economy:
•An estimated 6,700 construction jobs
•An estimated 2,900 permanent jobs tied to casinos
•Nearly $200 million in aid to local governments
•$240 million for schools and property tax relief

New York already has legalized gambling. The state-run lottery resulted in a $3 billion profit for the state. The state also licenses up nine racinos which allow video-lottery terminals. There are currently 29,000 video-lottery terminals in place. There are also five Indian-run casinos in operation.

“I always like to say it’s like our shoes are tied together because we can do most of gambling, but not all of it. This will just free it up for the full investment and I think it will be positive,” added Heather Briccetti, the president of the state’s Business Council.

Briccetti is leading an effort to promote the passage of the amendment. Called New York Jobs Now, it is bringing together a coalition of casino supporters that have spending heavily on an ad campaign trying to influence the outcome: upwards of $2 million from gambling interests and unions that would benefit from the amendment’s approval.

Briccetti said casinos aren’t a cure-all for the ailing upstate economy but says it is certainly an extra perk.

“No, it’s not a silver bullet, but it’s an added benefit,” she said.

Supporters insist the money for education will flow in if the amendment passed.

“Well, I read the legislation and there’s a separate account that is set up for the revenues generated for schools,” said Briccetti. “It can only be appropriated by the Legislature and it can only be appropriated for additional funding for education.”

However, opponents of gambling have their doubts. They point to the negative impact gambling can have. At the same time, they are skeptical the job creation generated from the amendment’s approval will be meaningful.

Stephen Shafer is a retired physician who runs the Coalition Against Problem Gambling.

“It will certain increase economic activity, the spending of money, the churning of cash, moving around in these communities. But generally the actual job creation is a wash,” Shafer said.

The developers are still willing to pony up the $1 million license fee if the casino amendment could spell major revenue for cash-strapped regions of the state.

“The Catskill-Hudson Valley Region for years and years and years has been dreaming of this, and I think come Election Day people are going to be very excited and for good reason,” said Michael Treanor, The Nevele CEO.

In the Southern Tier, that dream may be realized by an expansion of Tioga Downs into a full-fledged resort and casino. For a region that lags the rest of the state in employment, racino operators are pinning their hopes on the amendment passing.

“We’re going to have a spa, we’re going to duplicate what we have here, which is the ability to have weddings and meetings,” said Jeff Gural, owner of Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs. “All these things require people to do it.”

Common Cause: ID Donors On TV And Mail

As the pro-casino group New York Jobs Now sends out mail and airs TV ads that barely mention casinos, the good-government group Common Cause today is calling for paid media to disclose who exactly is paying for it.

The move seems to akin to including a “Surgeon General’s Warning” on political advertising by listing the top five donors to a group that’s paying for the campaign.

New York Jobs Now is a ballot referendum committee that is required to disclose its donors with the state Board of Elections, but can raise unlimited funds.

Indeed, the top backers of New York Jobs Now include mostly casino operators hoping to land a lucrative gaming license should the amendment pass.

“As they consider the issue of Las Vegas style casino gambling, voters might very well be interested to know whose interests are at stake,” the group said in a statement. “Common Cause/NY advocates for a package of stringent disclosure requirements for independent expenditures, including the requirement that any mailer or advertisement include disclosure of the top five financial backers of the ad.”

Common Cause noted in its statement that the New York City Council has already introduced a measure to require such disclosure of independent expenditure groups and urged the state Legislature to do as well.

In what might be a first, the group also includes gifs to illustrate their point.

Earlier in the day, the New York Public Interest Research Group urged reporters to include more neutral-sounding language on the casino amendment and use a more critical eye when reporting on the topic.

“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,” NYPIRG said. “The media will play an important role in educating voters on the six ballots questions on the ballot this November. We urge you not to embrace the State Board of Elections’ advocacy language.”

Conservative Party Cheers NY Times Editorial

Strange bedfellows alert: The Conservative Party and The New York Times editorial board are in agreement when it comes to the amendment to expand casino gambling in New York.

The Times, along with several other editorial boards over the weekend, urged voters to not approve the amendment next week, which would allow for up four casinos in the first round of construction.

In a statement released earlier today from Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long admitted that it’s a bit unusual for him to line up with the liberal editorial board.

“It isn’t very often you will see a headline from the Conservative Party that says the New York Times is right, but last Thursday’s editorial was absolutely correct when it urged New Yorkers to reject the proposed constitutional amendment to expand casinos in New York,” Long said in an agreement. “The editorial called gambling a regressive tax that takes its highest toll on those who can least afford it and also said that casinos often bring higher crime rates and deterioration of the communities nearby. They must be reading our press releases.”

A smaller newspaper, The Daily Times in Watertown, also editorialized opposing the amendment.

The Post-Star of Glens Falls, however, wrote in its editorial that the amendment should be approved given the economic benefits, especially the area north of Albany.

A Pro-Casino Mailer That Barely Mentions Casinos

Late last week I received the a mailer from the pro-casino group New York Jobs Now at my home in the Albany suburbs.

The mailer is not dissimilar to the television ads airing downstate right now, promoting the approval of the casino amendment as one that will bring more aid to schools and create more jobs while also lowering property taxes.

Not mentioned at all is the word “gambling” or any gambling-related imagery.

There are about 190 words in the total mail piece, with only three of them being the word “casino.”