In New York, the gaming industry is finally getting what it paid for

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Happy gamblers. (foxwoods.com)
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The gaming industry has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this year lobbying the state’s executive and legislative branches, and if recent news is any indication, the investment is paying off.

On Monday, The New York Post's Fred Dicker reported that both Senate Majority leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were open to putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would legalize casino gaming in New York State. Governor Cuomo, meanwhile, said he’s also open to the idea and would come up with a final position on the matter by January.

Silver’s support for putting the issue to a voter referendum seems to be something of a reversal. In August, the Daily News reported that Silver was opposed to a casino in New York City. But in the recent Post article, Silver amended his stance, saying merely that he’d rather not see a casino in the inner city.

Whether his new position is a result of the industry’s extensive lobbying efforts or merely a reflection of the lethargic economy and the legislature’s desire for new revenue streams, whatever their origin, is anyone’s guess.

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Silver spokesman Mike Whyland said he didn’t know what meetings, if any, Silver has had with lobbyists, and then restated the speaker’s position: He doesn’t like gambling from a philosophical standpoint, but he’s resigned to it from a practical one.

“He’s still personally opposed to gambling,” said Whyland of the speaker, who is an Orthodox Jew. “But given the circumstances with the casinos in Connecticut and New Jersey and soon in Massachusetts, we ought to look for ways to keep that revenue here.”

(This position would put Silver approximately in line with Michael Bloomberg, who doesn't actually have a say in what the state does about gambling, but whose rhetoric may be described as that of a reluctant non-opponent.)

Skelos spokeswoman Maureen Wren, too, declined to detail her boss's contact with lobbyists for gambling interests, or to assess the influence they had on the Senate's apparent decision to support their cause.

“But the senator is supportive of a constitutional amendment to let people decide to expand casino gambling, because it could have a positive economic impact in certain parts of the state and lead to the creation of jobs,” said Wren. “Ultimately the decision should be up to New Yorkers through the constitutional amendment process.”

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Certainly, the gaming industry has been keeping Albany’s lobbyists busy.

Genting, a multibillion-dollar Malaysia-based gaming giant which paid $380 million for the rights to operate video lottery terminals at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, has spent the most lavishly. 

As the Times Union reported earlier this year, Genting will spend about $1 million this year on lobbying in New York. 

Public records indicate that between January and June of this year, Genting spent $340,000 on lobbying, with $100,000 going to the Albany-based government-relations firm Meara Avella Dickinson; $25,000 going to Patricia Lynch and Associates, headed by the Assembly speaker’s former top aide; $195,000 going to Cordo and Company; and $20,000 going to Empire Strategic Planning.

“They hired us essentially to promote their agenda, to bring casino gambling to New York,” said Empire's Jim Cavanaugh.

Patricia Lynch Associates also represents the Delaware North Companies, Yonkers Raceway, and the Beverly-Hills-based US Digital, which paid it $30,000 in the first half of the year. US Digital did not respond to a request for comment, but its Web site describes it as a “world-class, American technology company that enables key operators and government agencies with a legally-compliant, responsible online gaming system.”

Saratoga Harness Racing Inc, part-owned by Albany greybeard James Featherstonhaugh, has employed his firm, Featherstonhaugh, Wiley and Clyne, to the tune of $45,000, to lobby the state government on gaming. Featherstonhaugh is also heading up the newly created New York Gaming Association to push for table games at the state's existing nine racinos (and only at the racinos).

At a Sept. 7 hearing before the State Senate's gaming committee, Featherstonhaugh argued that New York State should benefit from the more than $3 billion New Yorkers spend gambling out-of-state every year.

"That's just the amount that New Yorkers drop at the gaming venues," said Featherstonhough. "It does not take into account the amount they spend on hotels, restaurants, stores, golf courses, etc." 

In a separate but not unrelated effort, the Southampton-based Shinnecock Nation Gaming Authority has paid Mercury Public Affairs $60,000 to lobby for state support to open a casino. The tribe remains agnostic on the question of a statewide referendum on casino gambling, something that if approved would likely poach business from its own nascent gambling enterprise.

The path toward legalized gambling in New York State is a long one. Two consecutive legislatures must approve putting a constitutional amendement on the ballot, which means the earliest New York's voters would get to decide on the measure would be November 2013.