By AARON SCHOLDER
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY - A coalition of the state's nine racetracks made its case Wednesday to legalize casinos in New York, saying the state should let the tracks add table games to their gambling offerings.
Native-American tribes also testified at the same state Senate hearing Wednesday on whether New York should pass a constitutional amendment to legalize privately run casinos. Full-scale casinos are currently banned except on Indian reservations.
Allowing for commercial casinos in New York has gained some traction because Gov. Andrew Cuomo signaled recently he's reviewing the idea. He reiterated that stance Wednesday in Buffalo.
"We're looking. We're researching," Cuomo said after touring a 9/11 exhibit. "They are complicated matters, and there are positives and negatives. It's not a simple issue, that's why we're taking our time and researching all available options to the state when it comes to gaming."
At the Senate hearing, the racetracks said New York would reap billions in revenue if they were able to add table games such as blackjack, roulette and poker. Now they are limited to the state-run video lottery terminals.
They estimate that with the addition of Aqueduct Race Track's gambling hall later this year in Queens, they will be putting $1.1 billion a year into the state's coffers -- even before the law would be expanded to allow them to add table games.
"We've only got the throttle half down, not even, because of what we are allowed to offer and what we are not allowed to offer," Timothy Rooney Jr., counsel for Empire City at Yonkers Raceway, said after testifying at the hearing.
Rooney said the track is already Yonkers' largest private employer, with 1,200 employees, and is undergoing a $40 million expansion. With table games, it would be able to better compete with casinos in the neighboring states of Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, he said.
The tracks recently formed the New York Gaming Association. The members include Yonkers; Batavia Downs in Genesee County; the Finger Lakes Casino and Racetrack in Farmington, Ontario County; Hamburg Casino at the Fairgrounds in Erie County; and Tioga Downs in Tioga County in the Southern Tier.
Albany lobbyist James Featherstonhaugh, who also is a partner at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, said the tracks have established facilities and a partnership with the state, which gets on average 44 percent of the profits from the video-lottery terminals.
"We have built an industry in this state, and with your support and your help, we can make this industry a jewel for New York state and a model of public-private partnerships across the country," said Featherstonhaugh, who heads the coalition, to senators at the hearing.
The state has several options if it decides to allow for casinos. It could just let the tracks add table games, or it could let private developers and Native-American tribes build new casinos.
The Seneca Nation of Indians has three casinos in western New York under a 2001 state compact. But the tribe has withheld $310 million in state aid since August 2009 because it says tracks have violated its gambling exclusivity in western New York.
"We strongly believe that allowing commercial gaming interests to operate in the areas of western New York where the Seneca Nation has gaming exclusivity will undermine the economic stability of the region, and actually result in a net negative impact on the people and communities of Western New York," Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter said in a statement.
Featherstonhaugh said if the tracks were allowed to add table games, the state should let the Senecas stop paying aid - currently 25 percent of the revenues - to New York. He said the money would be made up by the tracks' increased profits.
Randy King, trustee chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, which wants to build a casino on Long Island, urged the senators to allow the tribe to open a casino. Kim Vele, president of the Stockbridge Munsee Community, which wants to build a casino in the Catskills, made a similar argument that her tribe has the legal rights to build a casino.
To change the state constitution, the Legislature would have to pass the measure in consecutive, separately elected legislative sessions. Then it would head to the voters.
So lawmakers would have to pass the bill next year and then again in 2013 - when a newly elected Legislature would be seated - in order to have it on the ballot in November 2013.
Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, Orange County, has indicated that casino gambling could help the state's finances and create jobs. He heads the Senate Committee on Racing, Gaming and Wagering.
But he and other lawmakers expressed concern about potential over-saturation of casinos during the hearing.
"Don't hurt what's already successful," said Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga. "We don't want to hurt one community to help another. We want to help both communities or all the communities we can. We have to turn around and do this so we maximize the money."
Includes reporting by Albany Bureau Chief Joseph Spector and WGRZ's Claudine Ewing.
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