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Part 2: Financing the campaign for non-Indian casinos

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CNY/NNY/S. Tier: Part 2: Financing the campaign for non-Indian casinos
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In part two of New York's Big Bet, Capital Tonight's Nick Reisman explains how the campaign in favor of non-Indian casinos in New York State is being funded.

STATEWIDE -- The argument for casino gambling is coming through the air and in the mail box, an extensive $2 million campaign to persuade voters to approve the amendment that would authorize commercial casino construction in New York.

"You're going to see the full array of campaign message techniques. There's going to be some mail, some television, some phone canvassing, door-to-door, you're going to see the full array of election techniques," said Heather Briccetti, Business Council President.

The ads barely mention the word casino and never the word "gambling." Funding the campaign are a variety of casino companies and gambling interests, working through a coalition called NY Jobs Now.

Contributors include:

  • $500,000 from Yonkers Racing Corporation

  • $250,000 from Saratoga Harness Racing

  • $125,000 from Empire Resorts

  • $500,000 from Genting New York

And even labor unions are getting involved:

  • $250,000 from United Federation of Teachers

  • $225,000 from Carpenters Fund

The list of those opposing the amendment includes the state Conservative Party, religious groups like the Catholic Church and people worried about problem gambling.
But so far, they have not been able to put out any ads.

"We cannot go out and buy advertising space, but in a sense, the state has already bought advertising, they've put it on the ballot," said Stephen Shafter, Coalition Against Gambling in New York.

When New Yorkers vote next week, they will see this proposal on the ballot, "The purpose of the proposed amendment to section 9 of article 1 of the Constitution is to allow the Legislature to authorize and regulate up to seven casinos for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated."

"You expected them to add and give everyone a pony. I mean, it was definitely slanted in one direction," said Blair Horner, NYPIRG Legislative Director.

The ballot language that was originally proposed came from the state attorney general's office. That wording was then replaced by the state Board of Elections. A last minute lawsuit challenging the language was tossed out of court by a state Supreme Court judge.

For amendment supporters, the language accurately spells out the consequences of expanding casino gaming.

Briccetti said, "We are not just opening the door and saying go for it casino gambling companies, go have fun. We're saying you can come in, the revenue that we generate for the state we're going to build for these purposes."

And lawmakers in support of the amendment believe it won't have that much impact on voters.

"Those who support gaming will know to vote yes and those who have concerns and oppose it will vote no. So I don't think it's going to hide from anyone and those who generally have a feeling will vote one way," said Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle.

Casino supporters also point to previous ballot propositions, like the Transportation Bond Act, that included supportive language.

Briccetti said, "The Transportation Bond Act authorized $2.9 billion in state debt. If you asked the voters to authorize $2.9 billion in state debt and not say what it was for, I think it would get voted down."

"I learned a long time ago that two wrongs don't make a right. And just because in the past someone got away with putting their thumb on the scale in support of a transportation bond act which is spending money and it's not a little thing, but it's not changing the state constitution though. We believe this should be held to the highest standard and we believe that is not what happened here," Horner said.

And while the campaign to support the amendment has been expensive, passage could open the floodgate for even more political spending.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, earlier this year, proposed enabling legislation that would authorize up to four casinos in the first phase of construction. Cuomo included a ban on campaign donations from casino companies seeking lucrative licenses with the state.

Lawmakers quietly removed that ban before approving the bill. Their argument? Doing so would violate campaign contributors constitutionally guaranteed free speech. But some lawmakers are skeptical and fear the lack of a ban will only give rise to more corruption.

"State after state, country after country there has been an association between political giving, gambling and corruption," said State Senator Liz Krueger.

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