By Michael Gormley
ALBANY— New York voters bet big Tuesday on casino gambling as an economic energy shot, agreeing to let seven Las Vegas-style gaming palaces be built around the state, including one that will eventually open in New York City.
In a measure that became a referendum on the job-creating potential and social price of gambling, a constitutional amendment allowing the casinos was approved 57 percent to 43 percent, with 88 percent of the vote counted.
The vote was a major win for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who proposed casinos as a way to aid the long-distressed upstate economy. The first four casinos would be built upstate, at sites to be chosen by developers. A New York City casino would be built in seven years and possibly more could be built in the suburbs, although some casino operators say the law could allow that sooner.
"This vote will keep hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year in neighboring states right here in New York, while increasing revenue for local schools, lowering property tax taxes, and bringing proper regulation to the industry," Cuomo said Tuesday.
But while Cuomo hailed the measure as a way to generate jobs and tax revenue — his administration even reworded the ballot language to emphasize those disputed benefits — critics from progressive good-government groups to the state Conservative Party and the state's Roman Catholic bishops warned that the governor's projections were inflated and the social cost to families and communities would be profound.
"I think it's a bad day in the social history of a proud state," said Stephen Shafer of the Coalition Against Gambling in New York, one of the many grassroots organizations with little funding fighting a multimillion-dollar campaign by business, union and political leaders. "I can't be too gracious because it wasn't a fair fight. ... I think New York state is being taken for a ride."
The Democratic governor secured broad support among organizations that would get a piece of the gambling revenue, including businesses hoping for spinoff effects and unions that would benefit from construction and more school aid. Cuomo framed the referendum not as a question on gambling, but as a way to capture what he said is $1.2 billion a year in current gambling revenue that New Yorkers now spend at casinos elsewhere, including Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Canada.
Cuomo's budget office says the state would take in $430 million in new casino revenue, with $238 million for education, in a repeat of the strategy that approved lottery games. The rest would go to communities near casinos to compensate for public safety and social costs and for tax reduction.
The issue will now go to Cuomo's Gaming Commission, which will work with proposals from casino operators. They will choose locations for what are planned to be resort destinations with hotels and convention space. One would be in the Southern Tier near Binghamton, two in the Catskills and Mid-Hudson Valley region, and another in the Saratoga Springs-Albany area.
Tuesday's referendum hit New Yorkers just as public sentiment started to favor casinos after years of being split over the issue.
An October Siena College poll found the Cuomo administration's rosy rewording of the referendum — to promise jobs, tax relief and school aid — worked. The rewrite pushed support to 55 percent.
The state Board of Elections also took the unusual step of moving the referendum from last position to the top of the ballot, a more advantageous spot for constitutional questions put to voters.
An organized and well-funded campaign helped secure the vote. Cuomo had provided guarantees of exclusive gambling territory to Indian tribes that operate five casinos under federal law and other agreements to sideline operators of video slot machine centers at race tracks.
That sidelined the big money that was expected to counter supporters' TV ad blitz. One pro-casino, statewide spot financed by the NY Jobs Now Committee featured a hard-hatted everyman, with a script saying the proposal "would start to bring that money back to New York and create over 10,000 good-paying new jobs in New York state."
Critics criticized the referendum's unusually rosy, one-side view of casinos.
Now, the issue moves from broad generalities to specifics. Cuomo's Gaming Commission will prepare requests for proposals from casino operators, which will submit proposals. The result will be choices for operating casino complexes that would include hotels, and specific locations for casinos chosen by developers.
That process will take months and could be delayed further to lawsuits challenging the process. Cuomo hopes to use the casino plans as part of his 2014 campaign to show he has addressed a major 2010 campaign promise to turnaround the upstate economy.