Cuomo Plays Casino Referendum Hand Beautifully

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CUOMO PLAYS CASINO REFERENDUM HAND BEAUTIFULLY

The political media in New York has not paid a great deal of attention to a ballot initiative that represents some of the finest political back-room deal making I have ever seen. If passed, the measure would allow the construction of seven Las Vegas-style casinos in New York State. Now, usually when something like this heads to the voters, there is some opposition from those with moral qualms about casino gambling and from the big boys in the casino business who don’t want the competition. This time around, the morality police appear to be on their own thanks to the craftiness of Governor Andrew Cuomo. And because they are underfunded, they will likely lose.

The governor believes that casino gambling offers a way to bring jobs to upstate areas that are short on employment. At the same time, he thinks this move will provide $1 billion in tax revenue, which he can then use for a tax cut and some extra school spending. I don’t think it will do as much as he thinks, but he doesn’t base his policies on my opinions (if he did, New York would be much better off — but again, that’s just my opinion).

I am an agnostic on casino gambling. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal. I studied probability in my youth and discovered that the only game where you have any chance at all is blackjack, and only then if you count cards. On the other hand, who am I to stop another person’s fun? Gambling addiction can’t be fought by banning gambling any more than Prohibition ended alcoholism. But I do admire the way the governor has played this particular hand.

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In the New York area, there are three commercial interests that would normally oppose a referendum like this: the established casinos in Atlantic City, the racinos (horse tracks that also offer video gambling) and the casinos on Indian reservations. The “yes” camp has done a brilliant job in neutralizing each of these.

The proposal offers seven casinos, four of which must be built upstate. That means that the Atlantic City operations are physically far enough away that there isn’t really much competition. Moreover, not one of the remaining three will be allowed in Manhattan. But there might be something in the outer boroughs and Long Island for the AC operators — if they play ball. Trump and Co. understand this and are behaving.

As for the racinos, Cuomo’s administration made a beautiful move creating a win-win for them (there are seven of those in the state), no matter the outcome of the referendum. First, they have been promised that they will be taxed at the same rate as the casinos and that they will be allowed to bid for a Vegas casino license. And here’s the best part — if the referendum fails, there is legislation that would allow three video slot machine sites upstate and one on Long Island. That is, if the referendum fails, there will be more competition for the racinos to take on. It’s no wonder their trade group, the New York Gaming Association, has decided to back the referendum.

And finally, the Indian casinos got taken care of by the Cuomo administration. The governor signed a deal with them that settled years-old tax and land disputes. And he guaranteed that none of the seven new casinos would be near existing Indian operations. So, they have acquiesced.

But that hasn’t been enough for our governor. He has also ensured that the wording of the question slants to a yes vote. It explains that allowing the casinos is part of “promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes.” Hardly neutral wording, is it? A Sienna College poll showed people evenly divided on casino gambling, but liked the idea more when shown that language.

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Even that wasn’t enough. The governor had the board of elections move the question from the bottom of the ballot to the top — studies show that people are more likely to vote at the top and they get bored toward the bottom and give up. Putting this in the number one slot will ensure people see the positive language and vote.

That being the case, I figure the “yes” camp will carry the day — I’ll give you 5 to 4 odds.

[ Photo by Flickr user rd_79 ]

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