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August 18, 2012

Reporter's Notebook: Will voters roll the dice on casinos?

During the next 15 months, promoters of casino gambling are expected to spend millions of dollars to convince New York voters that they should approve a constitutional amendment to allow Las Vegas-style table games at gaming parlors in this state.

The arguments will be made for and against this proposition, although the conventional wisdom is that foes of allowing so-called Racinos to convert to full-blown casinos will be heavily outspent by the gambling industry as the two sides struggle to win the hearts and minds of voters.

It'll be an intriguing debate from my vantage point, as I have been around gambling for significant chunks of my life, including a few recent years working for the state agency that regulates the horse tracks, charitable gaming and the five Native American tribal casinos in New York.

The video lottery terminals at the Racinos (which double as harness tracks) are regulated by a different agency, the Division of the Lottery, because those machines are programmed by a centralized lottery computer even though, to players, they resemble and appear to function as slot machines.

Like most voters, I'll want to hear the debate play out before I make up my mind on the issue. But even if I had reached a conclusion by now, I wouldn't report on it, because we all have our opinions and I'm more of a reporter than a soap-box kind of guy.

Our perspective is shaped by our experiences, and mine include not only the aforementioned gig with the gambling regulator but also a childhood of spending many days and nights at horse tracks and greyhound tracks.

My old man was a follower of the sporting life. He gambled every day, and I was often his sidekick. By the time I was 7 or 8, I had been schooled in how to pluck the daily "number" from the columns of racetrack handle statistics printed in a Boston newspaper. In those days before the advent of heavily promoted state lotteries, it was common in urban areas for people to play "the numbers," an illegal racket run by bookies but largely tolerated by authorities.

My father worked the graveyard shift, driving a tow truck and pulling wrecks out of a tunnel snaking under Boston Harbor. This allowed him to pursue his true avocation: betting on those lightning-quick ponies and scrawny greyhounds chasing a mechanical rabbit. While I did not monitor his balance sheets, my observations led me to conclude my old man lacked the Midas touch at the betting window and that the phrase "luck of the Irish" was a cruel fiction.

His financial recklessness created obstacles for our family, but because my mother worked full time we were never hungry and never wore rags. His weakness did not lessen my love for him and years later I would ascribe his lack of self-control to having been deprived of his own father when he was just 5 years old.

So I have seen the downside of gambling. But I have also observed many people appear to be responsible in the way they wager and enjoy casinos as a form of entertainment -- even when their wallets are lighter at night's end.

The advocates for expanded gambling -- namely, the owners of the Racinos that would likely get to have roulette, blackjack and other games popular with those who regularly flock to Atlantic City and Las Vegas -- have their work cut out for them. This is because government's performance in the world of gambling has been less-than-stellar. New York City Off Track Betting -- often called the biggest bookie in the world -- has been put out of business. And the struggling New York Racing Association, which holds the franchise to run the state's three thoroughbred tracks, relies on a cut of the VLT action at Aqueduct Racetrack to make ends meet.

As for the chances of pushing through a constitutional amendment authorizing casinos next year, some believe the proposal's biggest hurdle could come in the form of internal bickering among its very advocates.

"The irony is that what might kill it is the greed of those who want it because there is a raging debate over who is going to get what," said Cornelius "Neil" Murray, an Albany lawyer who has been involved in previous battles against the growth of gambling in New York. "Those who want it are only going to want it for themselves, not for others, and there is going to be a big war over who gets it."

Another irony, Murray said, is that while casinos have been touted as a way to prop up the horse racing industry, they have contributed to the decline of racing.

"Casino gaming is one of the very reasons why horse racing is in such dire straits," said Murray, predicting that luring gamblers to casinos with table games will result in further declines in attendance and betting handle at the tracks. "Casinos are the enemy -- not the friend -- of horse racing."

The state Legislature began the process of allowing the constitutional amendment to go forward by passing a measure last spring that would authorize up to seven casinos (not including the current Native American gambling parlors.) If the Legislature backs it a second time in the coming year, voters would have to give their approval in November 2013 to amend the state Constitution by allowing casino gambling.

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