I wonder if Governor Andrew Cuomo has difficulty keeping a straight face when he makes laughable comments, or whether it is a skill that comes to him naturally. Last week the Times Union quoted him as saying to radio reporter Susan Arbetter, “I don’t want to be involved in casinos if it’s going to be politicized.” He went on to say, “If it’s going to be a politicized process, if that’s what the Legislature wants to do, I’m not going to recommend it to the people of this state.” His vow of chastity did not even survive the weekend.
His comments were sparked by the Senate President, Dean Skelos, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver having the temerity to suggest that they might have an opinion on where the casinos should be located - up to seven would be permitted under the proposed amendment to the state Constitution. Cuomo certainly has ample reason to be wary of the role politics might play in decisions concerning casinos. After all, he was Attorney General when his predecessor and that of Skelos - along with Silver - were the participants in procuring a racino for the Aqueduct facility that was botched so badly, amid considerable evidence of political malfeasance, that it produced a scathing 300-page report by the Inspector General as well as ongoing investigations.
The Governor has an interesting definition of what constitutes allowable “politics.” As he told Arbetter, “There’s some politics in terms of setting policy - where are the casinos, upstate versus downstate regions, how many - but I want to … have an independent authority do it and keep the politics out of it.” So the general location and number of casinos which, remarkably, are items specified in his budget for the upcoming fiscal year - three in upstate and none in the New York City area - are not the abhorrent “politics” but rather pristine “policy.”
Given this distinction, it would be fascinating to hear the Governor explain a new “policy” that was leaked to The Buffalo News and reported by Tom Precious on Sunday, a mere three days after the Arbetter interview. Instead of three casinos with locations to be determined by the new State Gaming Commission, “an administration official speaking … on condition of anonymity” said the Governor may now want to have a fourth casino located in Niagara Falls. This sudden reversal appears to be prompted by a dispute the state is having with the Seneca Nation over the latter’s purported failure to make $500 million in payments to the state from its own casino. Conveniently, there is undeveloped land in downtown Niagara Falls owned by billionaire Howard Milstein, described in The Buffalo News as “a major campaign donor to Cuomo.”
While the Governor may only be using the threat of placing a competing casino in Niagara Falls in his characteristic mode of power politics, it would not be the first convergence of Cuomo’s desire to bring casinos to New York with the financial interests of major donors. After he surprisingly made the authorization of non-Indian casinos a priority in his 2012 State of the State address, The New York Times revealed significant contributions made to the Cuomo super-PAC, the modestly titled Committee to Save New York, by gambling interests. The CSNY, established shortly after Cuomo was elected Governor, received $2 million from the association of racino operators and another $400,000 by Genting, operator of the Aqueduct racino. And that was just in 2011. It is not known how much gambling interests contributed in 2012 because Cuomo has not asked that the group disclose its donors, despite his oft-invoked commitment to transparency in government.
I do not know if Governor Cuomo is so cynical, and has so little respect for the citizens of New York, that he has no trouble with making a lofty pronouncement on one day to a reporter in Albany, and then contradicting it three days later to one in Buffalo. It may be that he makes his policy decisions on the fly, with little thought behind them. The latter possibility is buttressed by what seems to be a “fire, aim, ready” approach to governance. We saw it with his takeover of the New York Racing Association where he sat on his own legislation for three months before signing it, or his failure to make appointments to the Long Island Power Authority but having no problem with criticizing their management after Sandy. In this case, he has yet to make appointments to the State Gaming Commission, the body charged with keeping politics out of the casino siting process. He signed that bill on March 30, and ten months later he has only come up with two of his five appointments to the Commission even though they were to begin operations on February 1.
It is possible, of course, that he is both that cynical and that unprepared.