'It's all nonsense': A forum on casino expansion gets emotional
Anti-casino activist David Blankenhorn thinks the gambling industry is engaged in "a sterile predatory activity that only takes money from people without giving them ... anything of value in return," and he said as much this afternoon during a panel discussion at the Yale Club.
Blankenhorn, the president of the Institute for American Values, is one of the most prominent spokespeople for the poorly funded, motley group of New Yorkers battling a ballot proposition to expand casino gaming in New York, and he was the only dissenter on a four-person panel on casinos hosted today by the Citizens Budget Commission.
Aside from Blankenhorn, the other three speakers were all staunch supporters: Yonkers Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, who chairs the committee on racing and wagering; Sullivan County Senator John Bonacic, who chairs the same committee in the Senate; and Heather Briccetti, the president of the state's Business Council.
They received some additional support from the crowd.
When, fifty minutes in, it came time for questions from the audience, Jeff Gural, who owns two upstate racinos, decided to defend the industry.
“Why shouldn’t someone in Binghamton, a retired person who wants to spend $30 at a slot machine be able to go to spend $30 in a slot machine?" asked Gural, who was sitting at a round table on the 22nd floor of the Yale Club, with Blankenhorn on a dais above him. "Why should you dictate what someone should do with their money?"
This November, voters in New York State will vote on a proposition that, should it pass, will change the state constitution to allow seven full-fledged, Las Vegas style casinos in non-Indian territory in New York State.
A Siena College poll released today found that New Yorkers support the casino amendment 49 percent to 45 percent margin, which marks an uptick in support from last month, when 46 percent were in favor, 46 against.
New York already allows slot-machine like video lottery terminals at its racetracks, and Gural owns two of them upstate. He also owns a lot of real estate in New York City and considers himself a friend of Nancy Pelosi.
"I can guarantee you, and I'll pay for it, if you did a poll in Tioga County, I’d be the most popular person in the county, and I guarantee you that this legislation in Tioga County and in the area around my casino will pass by 25, 30 percent," said Gural today. "So if you are right that this is so terrible and that I’ve ruined so many people’s lives, then they'd vote against it. I mean, you’re just telling people how to live their lives and it’s wrong. ... Go to Tioga County. Ask the sheriff what’s happened to crime. I guarantee you crime hasn’t gone up, because I asked the sheriff. There’s been no increase in crime. And you hear this idiotic argument that there’s gonna be an increase in prostitution. I mean, come on. It’s all nonsense."
Opponents like Blankenhorn do, in fact, worry about rising crime and prostitution should casino gambling come to town. They also point to several independent studies showing that casinos rely on so-called "problem gamblers" for between a third and half of their revenue.
But as Gural pointed out, "problem gamblers" often use slot machines, and those are already legal, in the form of the aforementioned video lottery terminals, which operate like electronic slot machines.
"Most of the poor people that you’re concerned with, they only play slot machines, they don’t play table games," said Gural. "So all this does is allow more affluent people, younger people to play table games who now have to drive outside New York State to play table games."
Blankenhorn countered with statistics about problem gamblers.
"The studies overwhelmingly show that between 35 and 55 percent of all of the money that’s spent comes from people with serious problems, vulnerable people who get in terrible shape themselves and cause problems for themselves and their family members by getting involved in gambling addiction," Blankenhorn said. "That’s the basis of the business plan that you want to build on."
Following the forum, I asked Gural how he felt about Blankenhorn's characterization of the industry.
"I understand his point," said Gural. "Look, there's nothing worse than the lottery, when you look at it as a tax on poor people. I don’t buy lottery tickets. ... It's one way of becoming a millionaire. We know the odds are against you, but if you want to plonk down five dollars and buy five lottery tickets and then wait to see if you won, that’s your choice. It's freedom. And I don’t think Blankenfein, or whatever his name is, should tell people what to do with their money."