Much has been made of legislation filed by two Senators with the stated purpose of increasing the role of the public in the siting of casinos. Their bill, however, may actually have the effect of weakening that voice.
Voters in New York State approved an amendment in to the state Constitution to allow full-scale casinos on land not controlled by Native American tribes. In both Saratoga County and the city of Saratoga Springs, however, voters disapproved permitting casinos anywhere in the state. The vote in Saratoga Springs was particularly emphatic, with more than 58 per cent of voters rejecting the proposal.
In anticipation of the casino proposition being approved in November, the Governor signed legislation in July specifying the conditions and criteria to be used by the state Gaming Commission in deciding which applications for casino licenses would be approved. The Gaming Commission must appoint a five-member Facility Location Board that conducts a competitive procurement and then makes its recommendations to the Commission for the final decision. It is that law that Senators Liz Krueger and Cecilia Tkaczyk propose changing.
Under the existing law, there are two ways in which local opinion is considered. The first - and I think more significant provision - states:
As a condition of filing, each potential license applicant must demonstrate to the board’s satisfaction that local support has been demonstrated.
The other instance in which the voice of city residents is to be considered is in the evaluation of proposals that have been filed by bidders. The law specifies the criteria to be evaluated in making a procurement decision. The factor of “Economic Activity and Business Development” is accorded 70 per cent of the weight; 10 per cent is for “Workforce Enhancement;” and the remaining 20 percent is “Local Impact and Siting.” Within that 20 per cent, the criterion of “Gaining Public Support” is one of four sub-criteria , meaning that overall it is only about five per cent of the total evaluation. According to the law, “gaining public support … may be demonstrated through the passage of local laws or public comment received by the board or gaming applicant.”
The Krueger-Tkaczyk bill would substitute similar language for each of these provisions. Under their proposal, “the enactment of local laws” would replace the evaluation criterion; ”enactment of local laws or resolutions in support” would become the new precondition for a bidder to file an application.
The amendment to the evaluation criterion - again, only five per cent of the total weight - is an improvement. The notion that “public comment received by the … gaming applicant” is meaningful is foolish. We already know that dozens of employees of the casino and the harness track are in favor of a casino - they have already spoken to that effect. So, under the existing law, a proposal by the Saratoga Casino and Raceway begins with five per cent of the criteria being satisfied. The Krueger-Tkaczyk bill would be a substantial improvement, mandating the enactment of a local law to meet the five per cent level.
The amendment to the precondition provision, however, is an entirely different matter. The legislation would permit the precondition to be satisfied by the enactment of a local law or resolution - making the amendment, at best, redundant. Under the existing law, the precondition must show that “local support has been demonstrated.” The effect of the Krueger-Tkaczyk bill would be to allow the votes of three members of the Saratoga Springs City Council to override the express wishes of 4,725 of their constituents. It is hard to see this as a strengthening of local support.
It has been my contention that casino advocates have a considerable hurdle to overcome in satisfying the precondition since 58 per cent of Saratoga Springs voters said “no” to a casino anywhere in the state. It will take considerable rhetorical gymnastics to argue that even though that many voters are opposed to a casino anywhere, they nonetheless would favor one in their own backyard.
The experience in Massachusetts is that polls showed a majority of voters supporting the idea of a casino, but once local support had to be demonstrated in an affirmative vote by its voters, many turned out to be not so positive. Indeed, it is only in the state’s more depressed communities that voters have given their thumbs up.
This suggests that even among the 42 per cent in Saratoga Springs voting to approve casinos, many would be opposed to one in their community. Casino proponents have argued that voters may be opposed to casinos anywhere, but would rather have one sited in their neighborhood instead of in Albany. I have yet to see any empirical back-up for this view, one that has been advanced by the Mayor of Saratoga Springs, Joanne Yepsen.