By NADIRA FOSTER-WILLIAMS
Voters agreed Tuesday to amend the State Constitution to allow the expansion of casino gambling in as many as seven upstate areas.
With nearly all votes counted, the measure was ahead with 57 percent of the vote to 43 percent opposed.
New York already has five casinos spread out upstate, all owned by Native American tribes, as well as nine electronic racetracks known as “racinos.”
The tribes withdrew opposition to the move after Governor Andrew Cuomo, one of the all-star proponents of the amendment, signed an agreement to keep new casinos well away from their reservations in exchange for payment of past, and future revenue sharing.
The New York Gaming Association, in charge of racinos also initially opposed the amendment but switched gears after a new tax deal was worked out with the governor.
Gov. Cuomo called casinos a “critical part” of revitalizVotersing economies of suffering upstate regions, arguing that they would provide tax-free zones at state universities and a financial restructuring board. He said the building of casinos was “about gaming, and gaming is about tourism, and tourism is about jobs.” The governor’s Budget Office estimated that the casinos would generate some $430 million in new revenue.
One of the main concerns of voters was how profits reaped by casinos and how those will be dispensed among the various communities.
David Blankenhorn, president for the Institute for American values, cited what he termed the historic failure of a casino-based revitalization plan in Atlantic City.
“They said the very same thing about Atlantic city,” he said in a phone interview, “If you go there now, none of that is happening-the people there have nothing, and the casinos have everything. The people who frequent casinos typically don’t have much and it’s just a vicious cycle.”
The Times Union of Albany, where a casino would be erected should the referendum pass, called the claims of school aid via casino “Dubious.”
Other concerns were focused on “social ills associated with casinos,” such as crime and prostitution,said Dennis Poust of the New York State Catholic Conference.
State businesses and organizations with strong interests in gambling have spent millions on lobbying and political contributions in Albany to sway lawmakers on whether to reject or accept the expansion. According to a New York Public Interest Research Group, groups with gambling interests have contributed up to $2 million to statewide campaign committees, candidates and parties.
“It raises revenue for the state, but is it worth harming the people?” asked Blankenhorn.
Other voters, like John Vetter, the Director of Ticket Services at Brooklyn College’s Performing Arts Center favored the casino campaign.
“We need casinos in New York,” he said. “Why send them to Atlantic City? Coney Island could be just amazing,” he said.
Outgoing Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz agreed.
“Back in January when I called for casino gambling, at that moment I was like playing blackjack and asking the dealer to hit on 20, but now the idea of casino gambling is coming up aces,” Markowitz told the Daily News in 2012.
Gov. Cuomo’s father, Mario argued against such a proposal 20 years ago during his term as governor, and although he has since changed his mind, wrote about boosting the economy with casino expansion in his 1994 book, The New York Idea:An Experiment with Democracy. This quote was used in an ad opposing Cuomo’s call for more casinos.
Former Gov. Cuomo said, that expanding casinos was “…Economically regressive to a state and a community. It changes communities… It doesn’t generate wealth, it redistributes it.”
Further controversy centered on the wording of the ballot, which critics said closely matched the governor’s thinking.
“Just to see it,” said Blankenhorn, “There’s something so sacred about voting and to have it violated by language on the ballot-it is so rigged. My first reaction is that it will be amazing if anyone votes against it with wording like that.”
Both Mayoral candidates endorsed the amendment, with De Blasio calling it a “win-win” for New York.