A statewide vote to amend the constitution byallowing up to seven new full-gaming casinos in New York has been engineered in the Capitol over two legislative sessions, the culmination of years of debate touching on economic development, quality of life and the social costs of problem gambling.
But with just seven weeks to go before voters decide the issue in November’s general election, the silence from advocates and opponents is deafening.
That can be ascribed in large part to the recently ended primary campaign season that, upstate and down, included virtually no debate about the casino plan.
“We’re just taking a minute. … I think people have a lot of fatigue from the (primary) election,” said Heather Briccetti, president and CEO of the state Business Council.
Briccetti’s group is already in discussions with other organizations on a campaign to support passage of the referendum, though those plans remain conceptual. “I expect that it’s going to be multiple stakeholders. … There’s nothing concrete,” she said.
The New York Gaming Association, which represents the nine VLT parlors already at state racetracks, supports passage of the measure but isn’t planning any public outreach.
“The Gaming Association is supportive of the referendum, and believes it should be passed,” said Albany attorney James Featherstonhaugh, the association’s president and a principal in Saratoga Casino and Raceway.
His group believes racetrack casinos should be among the first in line for the new full-gaming franchises because they would be able to quickly refit their operations, and because of the money they’ve already made for the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has resisted this idea, and expressed his low opinion for current revenue-sharing arrangements between the state and the VLT facilities.
But legislation passed earlier this year, and gaming compacts reached between the Cuomo administration and three native tribes, have carved several of the Gaming Association’s members out of contention, while others — including Saratoga — remain possibilities.
The referendum “obviously affects different members differently,” Featherstonhaugh said. Consequently, “I do not expect the association to itself play any active role in the campaign.”
Nor does Featherstonhaugh expect the volume of the debate over the referendum to be very loud. The New York City mayoral race will “take most of the oxygen out of the room,” he said, and the expansion of gambling isn’t nearly as divisive an issue as it might have been a few years ago.
The silence of supporters could be a sign of confidence. An August poll by Siena Research Institute found statewide opinion on casino expansion 49-42 percent in favor; a year’s worth of previous surveys also showed supporters outnumbering opponents.
Under the governor’s plan, the first four new resort casinos will be built upstate with a seven-year period of exclusivity. Downstate voters lacking a long-term vision — or who just don’t like casinos — might have an easier time voting no.
Also unknown is whether the governor, the principal architect of the expansion plan, will go on the road to support passage. Cuomo’s spokesman had no comment beyond reaffirming the governor’s support for the measure.
Opponents of the expansion will be active in the weeks ahead, though they say activities aren’t expected to get too intense.
“I’m surprised so far by the lack of organized opposition,” said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. “There seems to be a kind of passivity, and I’m not sure where it’s coming from.”
Stephen Shafer of the Coalition Against Gambling in New York said his small organization would be writing letters and giving interviews. “But we simply don’t have an advertising budget, so we’re kind of going hat in hand,” he said.
Dennis Poust, spokesman for the state Catholic Conference, said its member bishops plan to discuss the referendum at their meeting later this month in New York City. The church’s leaders have expressed worry about anything that increases addictive gambling, and view gaming as a regressive tax on the poor.
Perhaps the most significant piece of advocacy for passage can be found on the November ballot itself.
The language of the referendum, which will appear first among the six proposed tweaks to the state Constitution, has already attracted attention for including what some might see as language designed to prompt a yes vote.
“The proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the Constitution would allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State,” it reads, “for the legislative purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.”
None of the other five constitutional questions include similar explanations of the hoped-for benefits of ratification. As with any referendum, the language was developed in collaboration by the attorney general’s office, the Legislature and the executive branch, and approved by the state Board of Elections.