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NY referendum rolls dice on expansion of casinos

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MICHAEL GORMLEY | November 5, 2013 09:58 AM EST | AP


ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Voters are holding the cards as to whether New York will authorize seven Las Vegas-style casinos following months of debate over the benefits of expanded gambling and the rewording of Tuesday's ballot question.

One casino would be in the Southern Tier near Binghamton, two in the Catskills and Mid-Hudson Valley region, and another in the Saratoga Springs-Albany area. A New York City casino would be built in seven years, although some casino operators say the law could allow for a New York City casino sooner.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn't allow specific sites to be chosen, saying that would be up to the casino developers. His budget office says the state would take in $430 million in new casino revenue, with $238 million for education in a repeat of the strategy that approved lottery games. The rest would go to communities near casinos to compensate for public safety and social costs and for tax reduction.

Cuomo began placing automatic "robo-calls" Monday to voters urging their support. The calls were paid for by the business-backed lobbying group NY Jobs Now, which had held news conferences statewide touting bipartisan support by local government officials. The group wouldn't say how many calls were being made or how much they cost.

After New Yorkers have spent years split over the notion of expanding casino gambling, a Siena College-New York Times poll released a week ago found 60 percent of New York City voters — who are expected to dominate Tuesday's turnout — support the question. However, in that poll they were still split over whether voters wanted a casino in New York City, which would be authorized in Tuesday's referendum.

Critics including good-government groups, the state Conservative Party and the state's Catholic bishops argue that Cuomo's estimates of benefits are inflated and that the social cost to families and communities will be profound. They also criticized what they called the referendum's unusually rosy, one-side view of casinos.

Opponents have little money to combat the multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns of a powerful mix of business, gambling and union interests. And Cuomo had sidelined much of the expected opposition.

He assured Native American tribes that they wouldn't face competition to their five casinos now operating under federal law. Cuomo also assured no competition to horse racing centers with video slot machines and gave them a chance to pursue casinos. The Board of Elections also moved the casino referendum to the advantageous top ballot position.

If voters reject casino gambling, the law will automatically approve more video slot machine centers.

Supporters say casinos will recapture more than $1 billion a year now spent at casinos out of state.

"Proposal No. 1 would start to bring that money back to New York and create over 10,000 good-paying new jobs in New York state," states one of the statewide TV ads paid for by the NY Jobs Now Committee and featuring a hard-hatted everyman.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Scott Carlsen, supervisor of the town of Wawarsing, said, "When you're at 18 percent unemployment, you've lost your industry, the housing market has really taken a hit around here, the potential of 1,500 jobs — it can be a game changer."

State Republican Party spokesman David Laska countered that it's "disappointing that Andrew Cuomo's best guess as to how to promote economic growth in upstate New York is apparently casino gambling."

The key to the outcome may be in the referendum's wording.

The Cuomo administration rewrote the referendum from the straightforward form submitted by the attorney general's office. The Board of Elections added disputed promises that casinos would bring more school aid, jobs and tax breaks, without mentioning the opponents' concerns about crime, addiction or the declining casino market that has forced some states to subsidize casinos.

An October Siena College poll tested the impact of the rewording. Voters statewide were split on casino gambling in general. But when shown the promises in the rewording, approval reached 55 percent for the first time.

State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long called the casino effort "the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the taxpayers of the state of New York," while The New York Times called the rewording "advocacy, pure and simple."

The critical wording was unsuccessfully challenged in court by Brooklyn lawyer Eric Snyder. The state Board of Elections won on a technicality that Snyder didn't file his lawsuit by the Aug. 19 deadline, although the state didn't post the rosy wording until Aug. 21. Powerful Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco is pushing a bill to prohibit rewording.

"I hope the voters send the Board of Elections the message that it's wrong to stack the deck," Snyder said.