Thursday, March 1, 2012

Taking stock in Cuomo's gambling proposal

Original story at The Register Star Online

Gary Greenberg sits in the kitchen of his home in Valatie with some of the souvenirs from Vernon Downs that he has collected over the years spread out on the table. | David Lee/Hudson-Catskill Newspapers

By John Mason
Hudson-Catskill Newspapers
Wednesday, February 15, 2012 2:07 AM EST
NEW YORK - Eight words Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants added to the New York State Constitution have lifted the hopes of racetrack owners and betting fans and raised concerns of others about increased gambling and increased competition for American Indian casinos.

The eight words are "and except casino gambling regulated by the state," and they would be added to Article 1, Section 9, Subdivision 1, which lists unpermitted gambling-related activities. Casino gambling would become an exception, meaning that it would be permitted.

Gary Greenberg of Valatie owns about 5 percent of the Vernon Downs harness track in Utica. As an active shareholder, he said, he has been involved in lobbying efforts to change laws to benefit the tracks.

The stock has a sentimental value for Greenberg, who would go to the track with his grandfather.

Greenberg's family have held stock in Vernon Downs for more than half a century. When it was starting out, construction bonds were being sold. Greenberg's grandfather bought some, and they converted into stock.

Those stayed in the family. Then in 1998, when the video lottery terminals were coming in, shares were put up for sale and Greenberg bought some.

He has also been a defender of the rights of shareholders, as Vernon Downs has gone through ownership changes and in and out of bankruptcy.

Vernon Downs is one of nine non-Indian casinos in New York state. It's about 15 miles from Turning Stone, located on the Oneida Indian Reservation.

Turning Stone doesn't pay taxes.

The Indian casinos are allowed to have full table games - the racetrack casinos, or racinos, can only have video lottery terminals, or VLTs.

Gov. Cuomo's proposed amendment would allow a change to the State Constitution to allow non-Indian casinos to have full-table games with dealers.

"Pennsylvania and Connecticut already have this, and Massachusetts just passed a law - they'll have it in a year," Greenberg said.

The bill would go to both houses of the State Legislature this year, and again next year. If it passes both houses in each of the next two years, it would go before the voters as a referendum in November 2013.

"Gov. Cuomo is behind it," Greenberg said. "We're positive it will pass."

Also behind it is the Business Council of New York state.

"Expanding state regulated gaming will give the state's economy a much-needed boost, with significant new private sector jobs and capital investment, and could produce up to $1 billion in new state tax revenues, according to Division of Budget estimates," the council stated in a press release.

"Casino gaming is already a multi-billion dollar industry in the state. The state's nine raceways and video lottery terminal locations employ an estimated 5,000 people and have contributed over $3.55 billion in state tax revenue."

The release predicted the expansion of casino gaming would create thousands of jobs "with a positive impact on travel and tourism."

James Maney, a spokesman for the New York Council on Problem Gambling, said, "We don't take a stand on the expansion of gambling. We will (say that) when there's more opportunity and availability, more people will have problems with it."

New York state, Maney said, needs more prevention, more research, more public awareness about problem gambling.

"There's gambling on every corner already," he said. "Casino gambling is just 1 percent of it. The Internet is the hugest one. Casino gambling is just the introduction of table games; we have slot machines, VLTs, we have electronic table games, roulette, craps, baccarat."

Expansion would allow non-electronic table games, meaning more variety of games, he said. The problem is in the greater availability.

"If you put in a highway, if there's a cliff you put guard rails up," he said. "(With gambling) we don't put in any signs saying 'slow down.' We've got to put in warnings and make sure there's information out there so people can make intelligent decisions."

Greenberg agrees that such advertising is needed.

"We don't want people to spend their whole paychecks," he said. "There's advertising in all the racinos. For people who need help, it's available. The majority come in for fun and entertainment."

In response to Cuomo's speech, a spokesman for the Oneida Indians emailed the following response: "Governor Cuomo presented a very far-reaching and ambitious agenda. We support the governor's goal of revitalizing the upstate economy and creating a more prosperous future for all of our communities. We look forward to working with the administration as a productive partner in building a better New York."

The spokesman indicated that this should not be construed as an endorsement of the expansion of casinos.

Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter said the nation doesn't oppose statewide casino gambling, but expects state lawmakers to honor state law and retain the Nation's 14-county exclusivity zone in Western New York.

"The governor wisely recognizes the economic benefits to New York State of Indian-owned casinos. The Seneca Nation has no quarrel with the governor's goal of bringing this success to other parts of the state," Porter said. "But in the course of doing so, the state must not kill the golden goose that supports the Western New York economy and must recognize our exclusivity zone."

Greenberg also favors exclusivity of a kind - for the state's seven harness tracks, Batavia, Hamburg, Tioga Downs, Vernon Downs, Saratoga, Monticello and Yonkers, as well as two thoroughbred tracks with racinos, Finger Lakes and Aqueduct.

"The nine tracks want non-Indian casinos at their locations," he said. "We're against further locations. We're up against Turning Stone. We've done well, because people want to support Vernon Downs because they do pay taxes."

The casinos, he said, would create thousands of jobs for New York state.

"Between the nine racetracks," Greenberg said, "I think it will bring billions into the state."

Some money, he said, would go to New York state for education, some would go to the track, some would go to agriculture and some would be put away for track improvements, profits and marketing. Some VLT profits are going to breeders, which is good locally.

"Columbia County is becoming an area for breeders of horses; there are a lot of thoroughbreds here," Greenberg said.

"The law would help increase the purses," he said. VLTs, which were added in 2006, helped increase revenues.

"The VLTs have worked well," Greenberg said. "There's no crime. The communities are happy with them. They get a percentage of the profits each year."