Lost in the debate is whether New York should even change its Constitution – no small thing – in order to allow casinos. That public discussion has been largely skipped over. Instead, the fight is over who will get control of the lucrative rights to operate full-scale commercial casinos: slot machine operators, race track owners, Las Vegas casino owners, Native American tribes or a Malaysian-based casino giant.
The winners get to fleece New Yorkers out of their hard-earned money in effort to help fund the state bureaucracy in Albany and generate some mostly low-paying service industry jobs. But the casino backers are spinning a different story with a $240,000 ad campaign touting the jobs and tax revenue that will come from casinos. No mention, of course, of the social and economic costs that will come from more gambling – just the supposed benefits of a regressive tax. The way the gambling industry tells it, everyone is a winner, when in fact many who can least afford it will be losers. (That includes taxpayers. In Pennsylvania, the promised tax relief has not quite materialized.)
More troubling, Gov. Cuomo’s plan to change the very first article in the state Constitution is a bare bones eight-word amendment that offers no details about how many casinos will open, where they will be located, who will get the casino licenses or how that process will be decided. Yet, at the same time, Cuomo has apparently struck a deal with Genting, a Malaysian casino giant, to build a $4 billion convention center in Queens, next to a race track where it already has slot-like video machines. In return, Genting wants the exclusive and invaluable casino rights in New York City. (See here how Genting got the inside track.)
Sure, sounds like a backroom casino deal dressed up as a convention center. Why no bids or RFP? The stakes are very high and the policy implications too large for such Albany shenanigans. Not to mention most voters – even some gamblers - oppose such a move, according to a recent poll. Then there is this: Cuomo wants to build a new convention center while the old one is in the midst of a major renovation. Makes no sense. Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg remains largely on the sidelines.
All the gambling talk has stirred the Las Vegas casino owners into action. Before more deals are cut, Cuomo owes it to taxpayers to first make the case as to why the state should change its Constitution. If that goes forward - which would be a mistake - then at the very least there should be an open and transparent process to determine who, what, where, when and how the casino licenses will be awarded. Not to mention how will the state pay for the increased social and economic costs that come from casinos, including more crime, bankruptcy and divorce. (See here how other states have cut back on helping problem gamblers.)
Before the ad campaign continues and the casino owners start measuring for drapes, there should also be an independent analysis to determine if those costs outweigh the benefits. There is already ample evidence that indicates this is a bad public policy with lots of downsides and costs, including the corrupting influence of the government. Sure, this is the same misguided path other states have followed, but New Yorkers deserve better.