Casinos are back in Florida

December 10, 2012 9:45 am

When we last left sunny Florida earlier this year, a bid to legalize commercial casinos had died in the legislature - thanks mainly to fierce opposition from the state Chamber of Commerce, Disney and several influential business leaders in South Florida.

But like the zombies that rise up from the grave in the movie Night of the Living Dead, Malaysian-based casino giant, Genting, is back pushing an effort to bring casinos to Florida. After losing in Tallahassee, the firm launched a petition drive to get a casino amendment on the state ballot. Genting backed off of that effort last week and instead is once again lobbying, er, working with lawmakers to craft a measure to legalize casinos.

Genting had spent $905,000 on a possible petition drive and hired Nation Voter Outreach, a Nevada-based political consulting firm that specializes in organizing signature drives. It also hired constitutional scholar, Bruce Rogow, of Fort Lauderdale, to work on amendment language and paid political consultant and pollster Tony Fabrizio to start a setting up a political strategy, according to the Miami Herald.

A lobbyist for Genting said the company abandoned those plans because the next two years provides “a good opportunity to look at all aspects of the regulatory and strategic environment.” Translation: Genting would rather try to control state lawmakers than let voters decide the fate of casinos.

According to the Herald: “A pivotal player in the debate will be the Broward-based Seminole Tribe, the owner of the Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa and five other casinos in Florida. Its agreement with the state gives the Seminoles the exclusive right to offer blackjack and other table games in Miami Dade and Broward counties through 2015 in exchange for annual payments to state and local governments.”

Genting’s return to Florida is nothing new. Casino firms routinely get turned away by state lawmakers and voters. But rather than go away, the casino companies often just hire more lobbyist and spend more money trying to influence lawmakers and voters until they get their way. When it comes to legalizing casinos, no never means no.

NY casinos: No sure bet

June 25, 2012 11:58 am

For a while it seemed as if Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to change the state constitution to allow commercial casinos was a slam dunk. But suddenly the odds are looking a bit longer.

“Don’t bet on New York embracing a constitutional amendment to become a full  casino state next year, no matter how confident Gov. Cuomo appears to be on the  subject,” columnist Fred LeBrun writes in the Albany Times Union.

The easy part was proposing the casinos and getting it past the Legislature on the first vote. The tough part comes next year when the legislature must vote again and the public must approve a change in the state Constitution.

“It’s a reasonable assumption that a broad and improbable  coalition with plenty of clout, cash and a good argument will surface to try to  defeat the public referendum in the fall,” LeBrun writes. “Early indications are that New Yorkers are slightly in favor of expanding  casino gambling, but that’s without specifics on the table — notably where  they’ll be built — and before opponents begin hammering home an alternative  message: that gambling is lousy economic development and, basically, we don’t  need it.”

Competing gambling interests could also kill the effort. And as more details emerge about the plan, opposition will also grow. “Cuomo’s strategy to entice a constitutional amendment expanding casino gambling  has relied all along on keeping the concept as dreamy and unreal as possible,” LeBrun writes.

Then there is the corrupting influence gambling has on lawmakers. More details like the failed backroom deal Cuomo cut with Genting will make voters uneasy about supporting casinos.

Even casino mogul Steve Wynn hinted at the corruption aspect in an interview with Capital New York. “The minute you start saying we’re only going to have three, we’re only going  to have four, you open the door to corruption of one kind or another … The  restricted amount of licenses immediately creates political corruption, of some  kind or another, maybe not the criminal kind or anything like that, but it’s all about favoritism and who you know, and not about what you build.”

That’s the story of casinos in every state.

NY casino strikes gold

June 19, 2012 2:09 pm

The racino at the Aqueduct race track in Queens is taking in almost $2 million a day from gamblers. The average daily haul makes the New York casino the highest grossing slots joint in the country. (Since the racino is owned by Genting, much of the profits end up in Malaysia where the company is located.)

The Resorts World racino at Aqueduct generated $57.5 million in revenue in May, down slightly from the $59 million it made in March. However, the May figure surpassed the $55.4 million in revenue gamblers dumped in the slot machines at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. That made Resorts World the highest grossing casino in terms of slots revenue. That also means the casino is stripping nearly $2 million a day in wealth from the pockets of New Yorkers.

The racino’s success is due largely to its New York City location. It also underscores why Genting and other casino operators are salivating at the prospects of expanding or locating in New York. Resorts World currently only offers slot machines.

But Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports the expansion to full-blown casinos, which would likely attract even more gamblers. That explains Genting’s huge financial support for a nonprofit with close ties to Cuomo. The New York Times recently reported that Genting gave $400,000 to the nonprofit advocacy group called the Committee to Save New York. While that figure may seem like a lot it is less than one day’s haul from the slots in Aqueduct.

In addition to Genting, unknown gambling interests gave another $2 million to the Committee to Save New York. The donations poured in just as Cuomo ramped up his support for legalizing casinos in New York. The idea for casinos reportedly came during a fundraiser for Cuomo in Westchester. (See the excellent Times editorial here calling for more sunlight on the gambling process.)

As a candidate for governor, Cuomo didn’t even mention casino as part of his policy initiatives. Now he is busy trying to change the state Constitution to allow casinos, a move that will generate increased social and economic costs across the state. The shift shows how the casino industry’s deep pockets are driving public policy in Albany.

Gov. Cuomo defends secrecy

June 11, 2012 10:40 am

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo defended his ties to a private lobbying group, while refusing to call for the disclosure of the gambling donors who contributed more than $2 million to the group.

Cuomo, who has prided himself on supposedly running a transparent administration, said he did not think it was his place to call for the group to release the list of donors voluntarily. What a cop out.

The group, the Committee to Save New York, has spent millions on television advertising in support of Cuomo’s legislative agenda. The group – not to be confused with Nixon’s infamous Committee for the Re-Election of the President, or CREEP -  was founded at Cuomo’s urging shortly before he took office.

The Committee to Save New York is the biggest spender on lobbying in Albany. It raised $17 million and spent $12 million last year. At least $2.4 million came from the gambling industry. One big donor was Genting, a Malaysian gambling company that negotiated a deal with Cuomo to build a convention center and casino at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. That deal has since fallen apart.

Genting gave $400,000 to the Committee to Save New York in 2011. The New York Gaming Association, a trade group founded by Genting and other gambling companies, donated $2 million in December, The New York Times reported. The donations came just as Cuomo began to make the case to change the state Constitution to allow for casino gambling. Cuomo’s spokesman said the donations had nothing to do with the governor’s support for casinos. As a candidate for governor the previous year, Cuomo never raised casinos as an issue.

Under state law, the Committee to Save New York, is not required to disclose its donor list, and it has declined to do so. The New York Times and other good government groups have called for the release of the donor names. The secrecy surrounding the money fuels the suspicion that deep pockets are driving Cuomo’s policy. If the donors are giving money for worthy causes than what’s to hide?

Sheldon Silver: No casinos in my backyard

June 8, 2012 1:10 pm

Now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan for a casino and convention center in Queens is dead, he is pushing a plan to build a casino in Manhattan. Never mind that Cuomo said Manhattan was off the table just a few months ago. It appears that when it comes to casinos, like drug dealing, any corner will do.

But the main obstacle to a casino in Manhattan is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver, a Democrat who lives on the Lower East Side, has a ridiculous position on casinos.

Silver opposes casinos in Manhattan on “moral grounds.” He told The Times: “I would prefer to stay out of the city, but certainly at best the fringes of the city, in order to avoid the social ills that come with casino gaming.”

Uh? Let’s get this straight. So no casinos in Manhattan, but Queens is ok. In other words, Silver is fine with the social ills from a casino in working class or even rural “fringes” of New York, but not in the more upscale parts like Manhattan. Apparently, it’s ok for casinos to ripoff the poor, elderly, unsophisticated, minorities and immigrants who would flock to a casino in Queens or other rural parts of the state. Just stay away from the wealthy, educated, white folks, who can actually afford to gamble, and live in Silver’s district.

Keep in mind that Silver is a Democrat. Then again Silver is like most other lawmakers from either party when it comes to casinos. They know gambling is a bad business and an even worse public policy, but they want the tax revenue from casinos. But they just don’t want the casinos in their backyard.

In other words, when it comes to casinos, Silver’s position is like being a little bit pregnant. As for Cuomo, he appears open to any deal that comes down the pike. To get his full attention, best to pitch your idea at a fundraiser. (Read here and here to see how casino money and influence is driving policy in Albany.)

N.Y. casinos: Follow the money

June 5, 2012 2:00 am

Casino gambling was not high on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda when he ran for governor in 2010. But just as Cuomo ramped up his support for casinos last year, a group closely allied with the governor received $2 million from gambling interests, according to a report in The New York Times.

The New York Gaming Association funneled $2 million from gambling interests to the Committee to Save New York, a business and labor coalition that spent nearly $12 million last year mostly on campaign-style television and radio advertisements praising Cuomo and supporting his policy initiatives, according to The Times. The money from the gaming association came just as Cuomo rolled out his proposal to change the state constitution in order to allow up to seven commercial casinos in New York.

A spokesman for Cuomo denied that the money had any influence on the governor’s proposal. “To try to suggest an improper relationship between the governor and gaming interests is to distort the facts in a malicious or reckless manner,” Richard Bamberger, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, said in an e-mail to The Times.

In other words, the river of money from the casino industry was just a coincidence. More like a lucky bet.

The donations from the casino industry appear to make it the second biggest donor to the Committee to Save New York. (Not to be confused with the Committee For the Re-Election of the President, or CREEP, the organization at the center of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard M. Nixon.)

According to The Times, the association gave $1.5 million to the Committee to Save New York on Dec. 1 and $500,000 on Dec. 6. On Dec. 4, Cuomo published an op-ed article saying that he favored expanded casino gambling in New York.

Then guess what happened? “Within days, the Committee to Save New York also adopted the issue, adding legalized gambling to its list of priorities for the 2011 legislative session,” The Times wrote. Blackjack.

In January, Cuomo used his State of the State speech to call for the constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling and proposed a deal with Genting, a Malaysian-based casino giant, to build a destination casino resort that would include the nation’s largest convention center near its Aqueduct race track. Last week, Cuomo said the deal with Genting had collapsed, largely because it could not be guaranteed exclusive casino rights in New York City.

When it comes to casinos, lawmakers like to talk about jobs. But it is really the influence of casino money that does all of the talking.

New York casino deal falls apart

June 4, 2012 10:59 am

Now that Genting, the Malaysian gambling giant, has pulled out of a deal to build a $4 billion convention center next to its slots barn in Queens, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is searching for a new sucker, er, partner.

The New York Times reported that “uncertainty surrounding Cuomo’s efforts to push through a constitutional amendment to create a framework for casinos in the state made it difficult to reach a deal.” What uncertainty? It seemed like the deal was getting rammed through with little or no public debate. The other problem is this: Genting’s desire for exclusive gambling rights in New York City also hampered the talks, according to The Times.

That detail shows that this proposal was always more about a casino than a convention center. Claims that the project would create 10,000 jobs seemed dubious at best. Who would want to travel an hour from Manhattan to a convention in Queens? Of course, it never made sense for Cuomo to be negotiating privately with a casino company while the state had yet to legalize commerical casinos. Cuomo is now claiming he will have an open process. Right.

Indeed, Cuomo said other casino companies are interested in coming to New York, including MGM Resorts. Of course, all the problems that bogged down the Genting deal remain. As The Times reported: “The breakdown of the Genting plan also highlights the challenges confronting gambling companies now: the industry has matured to such a degree, and casinos have so proliferated in the Northeast, that competitors are desperately seeking to take market share from one another or to block their entry altogether.”

Look for the other casino companies to push to locate in Manhattan, a move Cuomo and other lawmakers have previously resisted. But when it comes to gambling, lawmakers are often quick to get behind whatever deal is on the table. Update: Cuomo and others signaled they are open to casinos in Manhattan.

As for Genting, the gambling company has had two recent major setbacks in its effort to expand gambling in the U.S. A proposal to build a giant casino resort in Miami failed to gain political support. The collapse of New York deal sent shares in Gentings tumbling. Genting spent nearly $900,000 on lobbying and campaign donations in New York last year, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group. That’s a drop in the bucket; a New York casino would like take in more a $1 million in gambling revenue a day.

Casino wheels at work

May 8, 2012 4:54 pm

Local TV is not known for much enterprise reporting these days. But this piece by the NBC affiliate in New York offers some good insight into the influence peddling that is behind the drive to legalize casinos.

The NBC piece focuses on Genting executive Christian Goode’s effort to bring a casino to Queens, N.Y. Goode is following the same formula used in other states: buy up influential lobbyists, throw around lots of money, and watch lawmakers dance like puppets on a string. (The gambling lobby is also a growing force at the federal level.)

Genting has spent $1.6 million on lobbying in New York since 2010, NBC reports. More importantly, the Malaysian company has hired the right the lobbyists with the right connections to the right people, as detailed here by The New York Times. They include a former top aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a former attorney for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Mayor Bloomberg’s former campaign manager, and a long-time adviser to Cuomo. Those are the lawmakers who will essentially drive the entire process to undo the state Constitution in order to legalize commercial casinos in New York.

“What this company has done is hire lobbyists who are close to every single powerful decision-maker who might be involved in the ultimate decision,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, a nonprofit watchdog for money in politics. (Millions were also recently spent on lobbyists to legalize casinos in Massachusetts.)

Goode told NBC: “We supply entertainment that people demand.” What a farce. The average person in Queens is not calling their representatives or holding rallies demanding a casino in their back yard. Likewise, lawmakers refuse to examine the social and economic costs that come with gambling. Instead, lawmakers bend to the will of the deep pocketed casino interests at the expense of their constituents.

Genting scales back in Florida

March 23, 2012 6:17 am

Genting, the Malaysian-based casino giant has scaled back its massive development plans in Miami after lawmakers rejected a bid to legalize commercial casinos in the state.

Instead of a giant $3.8 billion casino resort with 5,200 hotel rooms and 50 restaurants, Genting is now proposing to build a smaller hotel, some condos and retail space on just a portion of the nearly 20 acres it has acquired. Genting said the scaled down project could take 20 years to build. Of course, if Florida lawmakers change course and approve casinos, watch how fast Genting slaps a casino together.

The scaled down development project is a major setback for Genting. Even before Florida lawmakers introduced a gambling bill, Genting spent nearly $500 million to acquire the property, including the site where The Miami Herald is located, and unveiled drawings of the massive casino. The aggressive move did not go over too well with a number of influential business leaders in South Florida, who opposed the casino. Others said the project was doomed because Genting over promised and lost credibility.

The gambling bill was ultimately pulled, even after Genting and other casino operators spent millions of dollars on lobbyists to try to influence lawmakers. But many expect the casino companies to make another push to legalize casinos in Florida. Stay tuned.

New York’s casino propaganda machine cranks up

February 8, 2012 11:05 am

The gambling forces are gearing up for a fight over who will control the commercial casinos in the Empire State, as detailed in The New York Times.

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.