By Joseph Spector, Gannett Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY - The state Legislature on Friday planned to approve legislation that would legalize up to seven casinos in New York, with the first four to be located upstate. The measure would then head to voters in November.
The goal is to spark tourism upstate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. But the plan may hurt the existing racetracks with gaming, and there are also questions about whether developers will flock to build casinos in an already depressed gambling industry, some lawmakers said.
The bill to be adopted Friday would be another step toward legalizing casinos in New York. The Legislature last year gave the first of two approvals needed to change the state constitution to legalize up to seven private casinos.
Lawmakers were voting again Friday on the constitutional change, and then the change would head to voters in a referendum in November.
The Democratic-led Assembly passed the casino bill, 83-44. The Senate, controlled by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, was working late into the night, but was expected to pass the bill.
Cuomo said Friday that the bill to approve four upstate casinos is needed to give clarity to voters on where the casinos would be located. The bill includes language that would let up to four new gaming halls with video-lottery terminals if the referendum fails.
"All of those questions have to be part of an informed decision on the referendum, and this does both," Cuomo said on "The Capitol Pressroom," a public-radio show. "It sets up the referendum and it says if the referendum passes this is what happens and if the referendum fails, this is what happens."
The state's nine racetracks with video-lottery terminals said Thursday they support the casino bill. They said that the final version of the bill would give them tax parity if casinos were located near their facilities.
Three racinos in western New York -- Buffalo, Batavia Downs and Finger Lakes in Ontario County -- will be limited in the games they can offer and their marketing because of a recent settlement between the state and the Seneca Nation of Indians. The tribe was granted exclusive gaming rights in western New York, including the Rochester area; the racinos can still operate, but they will be limited.
Batavia Downs, which is owned by Western Regional Off-Track Betting, said it supports the legislation and the referendum. Western OTB shares profits with the 15 counties and two cities, Rochester and Buffalo, in which it operates.
"This legislation keeps Batavia Downs Gaming as a vital partner to state and local governments," said Michael Kane, Western OTB president, in a statement. "This act will allow us to continue providing good paying jobs and generating significant funding for schools and our municipalities."
Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, said he was concerned about the lack of transparency in the discussions about the bill. He also expressed concern about the impact on the existing racetracks, but he said he would support the package after some recent changes by Cuomo.
"I think it's a better bet now, but there's no guarantee" of success, Tedisco said.
In addition to a settlement with the Senecas, Cuomo also reached gaming compacts with the Oneidas in central New York and the Mohawks in northern New York. So the agreements limits to three regions where casinos could be located: the Southern Tier, the Albany area and the Catskills.
A gaming commission would pick the developers and the specific locations, and one of the regions would be eligible for two casinos.
Tioga Downs between Elmira and Binghamton wants to bid on one of the casino locations, and Saratoga Racetrack wants to build out its facility near Albany for a casino. There are three proposals to build casinos in the Catskills.
The plan also would allow two video-lottery facilities to be built on Long Island, one each in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The initial bill would have required a $50 million licensing fee for the casinos, but now the gaming commission would determine the fee based on a sliding scale depending on the regions of the state.
Tioga Downs owner Jeff Gural had balked at the $50 million licensing fee, saying it would be too high.
Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette, Seneca County, said he has wanted to ensure that the racing industry would be protected as the state expands gambling. In 2001, the Legislature approved allowing racetracks to add video-lottery terminals and for Indian casinos to be built in western New York and the Catskills -- though none were built in the Catskills.
"What I am focusing on is ensuring the integrity and support for the horse-racing industry continues because it means a great deal of jobs, particularly in the central Finger Lakes and western Finger Lakes region," Nozzolio said earlier this week.