Residents of Saratoga Springs opposed to a full casino coming to town may have already taken their best shot at stopping it - and it could turn out to be a very effective one. In the November 5 referendum on whether New York’s Constitution should be amended to permit full-scale casinos, 58 per cent of city residents who expressed an opinion voted against it, with only 42 per cent approving of the change. Because the tabulation of votes was done for the entire state, however - with downstaters who cannot be affected by a casino in their area for at least seven years being the decisive votes - bringing such a casino to the Spa is very much a live proposition.
Understandably, it is a controversial question. A group marshaling opposition - SAVE Saratoga (Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion) - held a rally of sorts on November 18 attended by a few hundred people to build resistance. Four weeks later, the Chamber of Commerce organized what it billed as a fact-finding session, with this one attracting in the neighborhood of a thousand people. While emphasizing that this was not to be a debate, the Chamber permitted proponents of a casino from Saratoga Casino and Raceway to be permanent participants on panels while refusing any role for SAVE. Apart from those attending to become more informed, there were two distinct camps in the audience.
In anticipation of the constitutional amendment being approved, legislation was enacted during the summer spelling out general procedures for conducting a competitive process for siting up to four casinos in upstate New York. The State’s Gaming Commission has general oversight authority over all gaming in New York, including horse racing. The Commission will appoint a five-member Gaming Facility Location Board which will be responsible for conducting a procurement to recommend four bidders to the Commission for the four licenses to be awarded. There are three regions of the state that may be awarded a license, with the Commission being authorized to make a second award in one of the three regions. Saratoga County is in the region that includes Albany, Fulton, Montgomery, Rensellaer, Schenectady, Schoharie and Washington counties.
The legislation specifies the criteria that must be used by the Board in evaluating proposals, assigning relative weights to three general categories. A weight of 70 per cent is assigned to economic activity and business development factors; 10 per cent is devoted to “workforce enhancement” factors. The remaining 20 per cent is reserved for “local impact and siting factors.” That 20 per cent criterion is further divided among four components, including “gaining public support.” One does not need an advanced degree in mathematics to realize that local support will be roughly 5 per cent of the overall evaluation.
While much of the public discussion has focused on the procurement evaluation criteria, the law has what I think is a much more meaningful provision concerning the importance of public support: “As a condition of filing, each potential license applicant must demonstrate to the board’s satisfaction that local support has been demonstrated.” In other words, before an applicant even gets to the procurement evaluation stage where the impact of local support is considerably watered down, it must show – independent of any other considerations - that it has community backing.
Legislative language has meaning. It would seem obvious that “support” must be demonstrated by something more than some people in a locale supporting a project. Otherwise there really is no standard since one can surmise that almost any proposal - no matter how bizarre or noxious to the majority - would attract some level of support. It is also a precondition for even submitting an application. While the evaluation criteria set forth in the law states that public support may be demonstrated through “passage of local laws or public comment,” the “precondition language” is not similarly limited. When a vote is 58 per cent to 42 per cent, it is viewed as a landslide. (In the larger area of Saratoga County, 54 per cent of voters were opposed.)
The effort to bring casinos to Massachusetts is instructive. The majority of those polled in Massachusetts, according to The Boston Globe, favor casino gambling in the state. The Massachusetts law, however, required the explicit approval of voters in any community where a casino was to be sited. The voters of East Boston, home to the Suffolk Downs race track, voted against siting a casino there even though casino proponents spent an amount of money geometrically greater than the opponents - an eye-popping $1.9 million in favor to $22,000 by those opposed. Because Suffolk is also partly in the neighboring city of Revere which voted in favor, that proposal is still alive - at least for a project entirely within Revere’s city limits. The voters in West Springfield, a separate city across the river from Springfield, voted down a proposal as did the voters of Palmer, a rural community not far from Springfield. Springfield voted in favor of a casino.
Having lived in both Springfield and Saratoga Springs, I am not sure I have any great insight based on that experience. Springfield, however, is both a depressed - and depressing – city. The site of the proposed casino is on a corner of the downtown area that was once the center of the city. It is near what remains of the downtown shopping area, court house, city hall and the city auditorium that was once home to symphonic orchestras (it may still be). It would be as if the Saratoga Springs proposed casino was to be built at a corner of Broadway and Lake.
The Massachusetts experience, where approval by a democratic vote is essential, it is in the less affluent communities where voters favor a casino. Revere, the city adjoining the Suffolk Downs property, initially approved siting a casino there, but must have another vote for a casino to be built entirely within its boundary. It is a property bordering oil storage tanks; Revere itself can best be described as gritty. It would not be confused with Saratoga Springs. If Revere voters favor it again, its competition for the Boston-area casino will come from nearby Everett where the proposed site is a former chemical dump.
The lesson from Massachusetts suggests that while voters may approve the idea of a casino somewhere in the state, they do not want one in their community unless it is a city that desperately needs the economic stimulus (assuming there is one). Those in favor of bringing a full-scale casino to Saratoga Springs have to explain why any of the 58 per cent of local voters opposed to casinos anywhere in New York would nonetheless welcome one in their own back yard. It is a notion that is counter-intuitive, despite the efforts of casino proponents to argue that the voters would rather have it in the Spa than in Albany.
Joanne Yepsen, recently elected Mayor of Saratoga Springs, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Now that the referendum has passed, the question of whether we are for or against casino-style gambling is moot.” Setting aside the question of whether a recently-elected official - whose margin of victory of 8 percent was considerably smaller than the 16 per cent difference on the casino vote in her own city - should ignore the wishes of her constituents and defer to those from New York City, that is simply not what the law requires. Casino proponents must demonstrate local support before even submitting an application, a considerable hurdle to overcome in light of the recent vote - at least if explicit legislative language is to be given any meaning.