Day At The Track

The Daily Gazette on casinos at racing tracks

06:37 PM 02 Mar 2011 NZDT
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The federal government shot down the latest effort at casino gambling last week, a dubious deal cooked up in the waning days of the Paterson administration that would have allowed an Indian tribe from Wisconsin to open a $700 million casino in the Catskills. But don't bet that will be the last word on casino gambling in New York state.

Indeed, a news report Monday indicates that a group representing several of the state's racino operators is already angling to get the Legislature's approval on a constitutional amendment to allow them to expand their operations to full-scale casinos. The Times Union reports that it is led by none other than James Featherstonhaugh, the well-connected Albany lobbyist who is also part owner of Saratoga Gaming and Raceway.

A constitutional amendment would take some doing - first it would have to be approved by two consecutive Legislatures, then by voters statewide - and it would be two and a half years at the earliest before this could happen. The state is in dire financial trouble now and could certainly use the huge shot of revenue that full-scale casino operations would bring, but it's going to have to deal with its financial problems long before then.

And even if casinos were approved, it would undoubtedly take years before the money started pouring in. (Remember what happened with the Aqueduct racino.) By then, the state's fiscal situation might be significantly changed for the better, assuming the global economic recovery continues.

But reliance on revenues from casino gambling is ill-advised regardless of what happens to the economy. For one thing, with so many other states opening their doors to this type of gambling, New York's casinos might not attract nearly as many people from outside their respective regions as supporters typically forecast.

And if casinos have to depend on people from within their own communities to sustain them, they could wind up creating as many financial problems for those communities - and the state - as they solve. It's not by coincidence that neighborhoods surrounding casinos are frequently loaded with pawn shops, check-cashing services and other such operations: They prey on people who are desperate for cash, willing to sell anything for a shot at a fast buck. Compulsive gambling is a serious problem that produces significant costs for society and the state.

Another serious issue with having casinos at race tracks is the competition they'll provide for the racing industry. Even if some of the proceeds generated by the casinos were used to fatten race purses, the competition from 24/7 casino gambling would surely weaken these facilities' racing operations. In the racing-rich Saratoga region, that could mean the loss of thousands of jobs.

Casino gambling is anything but the panacea it sometimes gets touted as. A single operation in a remote, economically depressed area like the Catskills would be one thing, but allowing the state's existing VLT palaces to expand to full-scale casino operations all at once would be a huge mistake.

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