The Saratogian

Racetrack casino owners say they’ll support Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest gaming proposal because it corrects shortcomings in a previous plan.

Cuomo and legislative leaders reached an agreement Tuesday on a measure that would allow four Las Vegas-style casinos in upstate New York instead of the three previously proposed.

Racetrack owners came out against that initial plan, saying it would give new casinos an unfair advantage by allowing them to pay less taxes than existing racetrack casinos. However, Cuomo’s latest proposal Wednesday says that new casinos would pay the same rate as current facilities.

Of major concern to the racing industry, the bill says that current payments for purses and breeding will be maintained.

“I think all of our major objections have been dealt with,” said James Featherstonhaugh, New York Gaming Association president. The association represents the state’s nine existing racetrack casinos.

Featherstonhaugh is also secretary and a part-owner of Saratoga Casino & Raceway, which recently announced plans for a $30 million expansion.

Cuomo’s proposal would allow four new full-scale casinos in three regions of the state — Capital District-Saratoga region, Hudson Valley-Catskill area, and the Southern Catskills. One region may have up to two casinos.

No other casinos would be allowed anywhere in the state for at least seven years.

However, for the first time ever, the legislation authorizes Nassau and Suffolk Off Track Betting to establish one video lottery gaming facility each at an OTB site with a maximum of 1,000 machines per site.

Legislation passed in 2001 said that VLTs could only be put at racetracks, to support the racing industry. However, there is no such provision in the state constitution, and legislation can be changed, said John Van Lindt, former state Racing and Wagering Board chairman.

Almost all members of the state Legislature have signed on as co-sponsors.

However, for new Las Vegas-style casinos to be allowed, the public still has to approve a constitutional amendment in a statewide referendum, which could be held in November.

Racetrack owners no longer have any apparent reason to lobby against the amendment. But Van Lindt said he believes Cuomo has included a provision to make sure they don’t.

If a gaming referendum does not pass, the state Gaming Commission would be authorized to site up to four new VLT facilities — one per region — in the Capital District, Eastern Southern Tier, Catskills and Nassau County.

This would have a major negative impact on some existing racetrack casinos, such as Saratoga’s and New York Resorts World at Aqueduct Racetrack.

“If racetracks and racinos lobby against the casino amendment, they (the state) will implement that bill and surround them with more VLTs,” Van Lindt said. “The state has the perfect right to put machines any place they want.”

New casinos would not be allowed in the North Country, Central New York or Niagara region where Native Americans have exclusive territory to existing casinos of their own in those places.

The proposal says that a state Gaming Commission, which still hasn’t been appointed, will create a siting board charged with overseeing a competitive selection process for new casino applications. Criteria are: 70 percent based on economic activity and business development factors, 20 percent on local impact and siting factors, and 10 percent on work force factors.

“We definitely think it puts us in a good position to compete for the license,” Featherstonhaugh said. “We look forward to bringing casino gambling back to Saratoga where it belongs.”

New York Racing Association board member Charles Wait of Saratoga Springs said, “I can’t say that I’m enthusiastic about casinos. If we have to have them, it makes much more sense to have these casinos at existing (racetrack) casinos than to build a new one and put the existing ones out of business. This looks doable for Saratoga. They should be in a position to put together a good bid.”

Of concern to local officials, 10 percent of state tax revenues would be split equally between the host municipality and the host county. Another 10 percent would go to other counties in the casino’s region to provide tax relief or educational assistance.

The remaining 80 percent would be used statewide for education or property tax relief.