New casinos in downstate New York soon? Why you shouldn't bet on it

Joseph Spector
New York State Team

ALBANY - The state Legislature plans to end its legislative session this week, and key lawmakers said they do not expect an expedited process to legalize downstate New York casinos to be on the final to-do list.

Business groups, casino interests and some lawmakers have spent two years trying to lift a moratorium on three new casino licenses that would likely go to downstate venues, but so far they have been unsuccessful.

They are trying one last push to get a law on the books to speed up the process for downstate casinos — particularly allowing two racetracks with video-lottery terminals, Empire City Casino in Yonkers and Resorts World New York City in Queens, to switch to full-scale gaming with live table games.

But legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo appear reluctant to address the issue this year.

"I don’t think it’s going to happen," Assembly Racing Committee chairman Gary Pretlow, D-Mount Vernon, said Friday.

He added, however, "I have an open mind. If it happens, I would love it."

Voters in 2013 approved legalizing up to seven casino licenses in New York. Four went to upstate casinos in the Finger Lakes, Schenectady, the Catskills and Southern Tier.

The final three, lawmakers agreed, would not be issued until 2023, giving the upstate properties time to get a foothold in the competitive Northeast gambling market.

Empire City Casino in Yonkers reopened after being closed due to the coronavirus shutdown Sept. 21, 2020.

But the powerful casino industry has pushed to have the 2023 moratorium removed, offering the state $500 million for each new full-scale gambling license and the promise of thousands of new jobs.

Cuomo in particular has been hesitant to move more quickly, saying there needs to be deliberate process to issue the final three licenses. The first four were issued through a competitive process of at least 16 bidders decided by a special task force in 2014.

"I am opposed to any casino authorization plan that is subject to politics," Cuomo said in April after the state budget was approved.

The budget included a process to start a "request for information" for potential suitors for downstate casinos, with the biggest price potentially being a casino in Manhattan.

"We have a Gaming Commission that makes the decision on the merits. There's a lot of money involved in casinos," Cuomo said in April. "There's a lot of lobbyists, there's a lot of political contributions, and I want to make sure that any decision that is made is made purely on the merits and I'll have nothing to do with a casino plan that can be politicized."

Senate Racing Committee chairman Joseph Addabbo, D-Queens, said it appears unlikely a deal to expediate the licenses will be reached this week, saying there have been discussions in recent weeks but no clear movement.

"It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. It pops up, you address it or somebody else knocks it down," he said. "So with the remaining days of session, we’ll see."

Lawmakers hope that at the least, the request for information process will allow new casinos to open in 2023 rather than years later.

More:Yonkers Raceway welcomes fans back to harness track at Empire City Casino

More:Full casino license push in Yonkers forms 'No-brainer' alliance for Empire City

But there is still pressure to move sooner rather than later.

Resorts World and Empire City are eager to get state approval to shift their massive video-lottery parlors, which are two of the largest gaming floors in the nation, into full-scale casinos.

It would mean swapping out the VLTs for slot machines and adding live table games. 

Last week, labor leaders, elected officials and business groups rallied outside Empire City at Yonkers Raceway to urge state leaders to let the facility get a full gaming license, citing the jobs and revenue it would bring to the region.

A state report in January estimated between $500 million to $800 million in new revenue for the state if the three casinos were operational.

The campaign for Yonkers is called “A Sure Bet for New York’s Future,” and advocates said they were holding out hope that a final push could give their effort a shot at approval before lawmakers leave Albany for the year.

“We are just days from the conclusion to the current legislative session. That is how much time legislators have to prove to their constituents that their priorities are Albany’s priorities,” Marsha Gordon, CEO of Business Council of Westchester, said in a statement.

Joseph Spector is the Government and Politics Editor for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Group, overseeing coverage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany

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