November 14, 2008, Press & Sun Bulletin: Lawmakers consider gambling expansion to raise revenue

Lawmakers consider gambling expansion to raise revenue

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By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau

ALBANY -- State lawmakers and the Paterson administration are considering legislation that would allow the state's video-lottery gaming facilities to expand hours and add electronic table games, such as roulette and blackjack.

The moves are being eyed as a way to give the state a boost in revenue when it's struggling to close massive budget gaps over the next four years.

"We will consider them all if it will help us raise some revenue," Paterson said in an interview today with Gannett News Service.

Some lawmakers want the state's eight racetracks with video-lottery terminals to expand its machines to include electronic versions of casino-style games as a way to draw new gamblers. Now, the facilities are limited to slot-machine-type games and video poker.

Moreover, the proposal calls for letting the facilities stay open for longer.

They can now stay open for 16 hours a day or 112 hours a week, but the proposal would allow larger tracks, such as Saratoga Gaming and Raceway and Yonkers Raceway, to stay open for 140 hours a week and smaller tracks, such as Batavia Downs, for 128 hours a week.

That would give tracks the opportunity to keep their video-lottery parlors open 24 hours a day a few days a week.

Proponents see the plan as an alternative to the effort to legalize casino gambling in New York, which has faltered because it would require a constitutional amendment.

"With the state having a tough fiscal situation, they may be looking for revenue enhancements," Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mt. Hope, Orange County, said of the Paterson administration. "This may be an easy way to go without a constitutional amendment."

Paterson has called lawmakers back to Albany on Tuesday to try to cut $2 billion from the current budget, which runs until March 31.

Some backers of the idea, including Westchester County developer Louis Cappelli who is redeveloping the Concord Hotel in the Catskills into the new Monticello Raceway, estimate the state could see up to $500 million in new revenue a year from expanding the facilities' hours and games.

They are lobbying the state Legislature to approve the measure at next week's session. There is also talk that the state Lottery Division, which manages the facilities, may be able to implement some of the changes without a new law.

A lottery spokesman said any changes are still in the "conversation stage."

"The lottery is always looking at new ways to deliver fun games to our players and also the kind of games to help us better compete with casinos in neighboring states and help us earn more revenue for education," spokesman John Charlson said.

Pennsylvania, Indiana and Rhode Island are among states that have installed electronic table games, which unlike table games at casinos are played against the computer rather than a human dealer.

"A number of states already have similar legislation and have seen quite positive effects, including increased economic activity and increased revenue to the state," said Darren Dopp, a spokesman for Empire Resorts, which is a partner in the Concord project.

Some racetracks said the changes would boost revenue.

"It gives us more opportunity to play, gives us better ability to compete with Native American (casinos), gives the places closer to Atlantic City and to the big casinos along Northern Pennsylvania, it gives them better ability to compete with them," said Martin Basinait, president of Western Regional Off-Track Betting, which owns Batavia Downs.

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