Times Union

Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s plan to permit three casinos outside of New York City is “evolving,” top lawmakers said after a closed-door meeting on Wednesday.

Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos said he’d like to see casino-enabling legislation stripped from the state budget, which must be passed by March 31. Other lawmakers have been pushing for a role in choosing the locations for casino expansion.

While a constitutional amendment will allow up to seven full casinos in the state, Cuomo proposed permitting and siting three in a first round, and limiting their location to counties north of New York City, Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. He has also said that the new Gaming Commission that comes into operation on Friday should decide sites.

After talking with lawmakers Wednesday, Cuomo said he would accept legislative input into the siting issue to guide the decisions of the commission. But the panel, which has yet to be filled, will still make the ultimate decision, Cuomo said.

“The Legislature’s role in setting policy is very important. This is a potential economic boom for upstate New York,” Cuomo, a Democrat, said. “We also all agree that the actual selection of bids, specific locations, should be left to an independent, non-political body.”

Cuomo declined to detail how the policy criteria may change.

“I would just say it’s still evolving,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. D-Manhattan. Asked if the first phase should be limited to three casinos upstate, Silver repeated that “it’s still evolving.”

“Evolving is the word of the day,” Cuomo joked. “I like to think evolution is a good thing,” said James Featherstonhaugh, president of the New York Gaming Association, a coalition of nine racino operators. His group wants to convert their track video lottery terminal parlors into casinos. He said he is optimistic about a siting plan, adding: “We would reserve our right to oppose it in the event we thought it was going to be harmful.”

Featherstonhaugh and co-owners of the Saratoga harness operation that includes the state’s first racino just completed the $28 million purchase of a small casino in Black Hawk, Colo., near Denver. He said the move was not made to increase Saratoga Casino & Raceway’s chances in any competition for a casino site in New York state.

Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, suggested he’d like to see opportunities for Long Island, although he seemed to be presuming the Catskills would be chosen for legalized gambling.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for upstate New York, and specifically I’ll say Sullivan County, but there’s opportunity for economic development throughout the state,” he said.

Private casino talks included Cuomo, Silver, Skelos and Bronx Sen. Jeff Klein, leader of the chamber’s Independent Democratic Conference. They also discussed New York City’s failure to reach a teacher evaluation system and other items included in Cuomo’s budget proposal.