Albany gets back to business

April 18, 2013 11:28 am

After a two-week break, New York lawmakers returned to work (for three days) amid the stench of more scandal as a handful of their colleagues were busted for a variety of corruption charges. So how do the honorable lawmakers in Albany deal with the scandal?

“Dark humor and stiff drinks,” reports The New York Times.

Apparently, the gag running through the halls of the Capitol is for lawmakers to frisk their colleagues to see if they are wearing a wire after a senator was caught on tape arranging a bribe. “You run into them, and you feel them up and down,” Assemblyman David I. Weprin, a Queens Democrat, told The Times. “You’ve got to make light of it some days.”

If that doesn’t work, start drinking. The workweek in Albany usually runs Monday to Wednesday. That explains why on a Tuesday night legislators, staffers and reporters gathered at Elda’s, a friendly bar in the Center Square neighborhood, to discuss their, ah, four-day weekend plans.

But in general it was back to business as usual. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, held a closed-door pep talk to tell members “a few bad apples” would not ruin their reputation. Meanwhile, one of the accused wrongdoers, attended a brief Senate session and sat in the so-called “crooked seat,” reserved near the chamber’s doors for lawmakers who are in trouble with the law. (The fact that there is a reserved seat in the corner for lawmakers in legal trouble is a sure sign that Albany’s moral compass is askew.)

Indeed, one of the top items on lawmakers’ agenda is working behind closed doors to hammer out a plan to change the state constitution in order to allow commercial casinos. That process is already off to a dubious start, considering one casino operator cut a deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to build a $4 billion convention center in hope of securing exclusive casino rights to New York City. That deal failed but that has not stopped the lobbyists and money from casino interests flowing into Albany. By the time the casino process ends, Albany may need more crooked seats.

For those not keeping score at home, here’s a quick update on the recent corruption arrests:

* Malcolm A. Smith, a Democratic senator from Queens, was charged with trying to bribe his way into the New York City mayor’s race.

* Assemblyman Eric A. Stevenson, a Bronx Democrat, was accused of taking bribes from developers of adult day care centers.

* Assemblyman Nelson L. Castro, also a Bronx Democrat, resigned in a deal with prosecutors under which he had secretly recorded conversations with other lawmakers to avoid prosecution on state perjury charges.

* Assemblyman William F. Boyland Jr. a Brooklyn Democrat, was indicted for bribery and other alleged crimes.

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.)

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.

New York’s backroom casino deal

March 15, 2012 9:30 am

With little public debate and even less transparency, New York’s three most powerful elected officials cut a deal last night to change the state Constitution in order to allow up seven casinos. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver quickly issued a press release last night announcing the backroom deal.

“Looks like classic Albany: Three men in a room, huge log roll, no transparency,” said political science Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College of the closed-door dealings during the annual Sunshine Week to encourage open government.

Gov. Cuomo said the casinos would ”ultimately put thousands of New Yorkers to work, drive our economy, and help keep billions of dollars spent by New Yorkers on gaming in the state.” But the governor provided no independent data or studies to support his claim.

Sure, casinos will create jobs and tax revenue. But studies show that the casinos create little economic spin-off and take business and jobs away from surrounding businesses. The casinos also will create more problem gambling, which leads to more crime, divorce and bankruptcy. Cuomo & Co. have not produced any data that would show those costs will be less than any benefits.

Casinos are a regressive tax that strip wealth from those who can least afford it. There is a reason why New York’s forefathers banned gambling in the state Constitution. Cuomo is correct that the state already has gambling in the form of lotteries and Indian casinos. But adding more casinos is not the answer to that problem. Lawmakers are take an oath to protect citizens not legalize policies that will ruin them.  See my recent op-ed in The New York Times that argues why this is a bad bet.

The late-night deal clears the way for the process to change the Constitution to allow commercial casinos. After two votes by state lawmakers, voters would then have to approve a referendum to allow the casinos. That vote is not expected before November 2013.

New York casinos not a done deal?

December 30, 2011 9:41 am

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said he is not sure that lawmakers will vote to change the constitution to legalize casino gambling in New York.

Hopefully, Silver isn’t just posturing and really means that lawmakers will weigh the pros and cons before taking the major step of changing the state constitution. If there is a real debate about the economic and social costs of gambling, lawmakers would understand that casinos are a bad bet. Sorry to be skeptical, but usually these casino deals are wrapped up in the back room of state houses.

The argument that other states have legalized casinos is hardly a compelling one. Same goes with the argument that casinos are the way to create jobs. Yes, there are casinos jobs but most of them are low wage. And the costs that comes from casinos is not worth adding a few low wage jobs. There are much better ways grow jobs than getting taxpayers to dump their hard-earned money in slot machines.

Casino supporters, including Gov. Cuomo, should produce the independent economic evidence – not studies funded by the gambling industry - that shows casinos are really a net benefit for the state and not just a way for the state to line its coffers.

Cuomo sheds more light on casino push

December 26, 2011 2:22 pm

Gov. Cuomo continued his “soft opening” campaign to legalize casino in New York by telling the Daily News that he would support a casino in the Big Apple.

“Like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Cuomo said he doesn’t  want to see a casino in a densely populated part of the city, but would be open  to putting one at a place like Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, which already has a  virtual casino,” according to the Daily News.

Does a densely populated area mean Manhattan? If so, why not? Casinos are a bad idea anywhere, but it would seem that a densely populated area like Manhattan would be the best location if Cuomo and others were serious about a casino that draws tourists and maximizes revenue. Perhaps what Cuomo and Silver are really saying is that a casino is fine in out-of-sigh and out-of-mind locations, like working class neighborhoods, but not in Manhattan where the more powerful elites live.

“I’m not excluding any locations at this time,” he told the Daily News,  adding that establishing a casino in a part of the city “certainly can” make  sense because the operation would capitalize on the massive population. “New York City is a real location. Albany is a  real location. Buffalo is a real location.”

The Daily News said Cuomo is expected to call on the Legislature in his Jan. 4  State of the State address to give the first of two needed votes to a state  constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling in the state.