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September 14, 2013

State clearly wants a 'yes' on casinos

By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star

---- — The wording of the state referendum that would allow up to seven new casinos to open in New York makes it sound as if all New Yorkers will be in the clover if voters agree it’s a good idea to change the state Constitution to permit commercial gambling.

Good government groups in Albany are in a lather over the way the ballot item has been scripted like a push poll question. Push polls are artfully constructed to attain a desired result. In this case, those desiring the result of a constitutional amendment are Albany’s powers that be. They have concluded that a good way to fatten up state coffers is to bring casino gambling to New York in a big way.

Of course, many other states are expanding gambling at the same time, which does not surprise us, as politicians tend to veer away from the politically hard choices, such as cutting programs that are popular with voters or raising taxes.

While one could argue that a consequence of an array of new casinos might be legions of new problem gamblers, that potential outcome is not mentioned in the marketing gimmick dressed up as a referendum that will go before voters in November. How inconvenient that would be.

The ballot reads:

“The proposed amendment to Section 9 of Article 1 of the Constitution would allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated. Shall the amendment be approved?”

Of course, no one can be shocked to find that politics has seeped into the electoral process. The question, after all, was scripted in Albany. It’s about as stunning a development as finding gambling in Rick’s Café Americain.

So my question Friday morning as I sipped a fresh-brewed cup of coffee from Spurbeck’s Grocery in Cooperstown was: Is it legal for the politicos to salt wording into a referendum question that is intended to influence the voters?

I then picked up the phone and contacted one of the state’s foremost legal authorities on the state Constitution as it applies to gaming, Albany attorney Cornelius “Neil” Murray.

“I’m looking at this right now as we speak,” Murray said after I popped off the first couple of questions.

Murray said it appears to him that the state decided to “rig the question in such a way that people are going to say yes” to the casino question.

The veteran lawyer said he was poring over both the state Constitution and Election Law to find out if there are any requirements for neutrality in the way referendum questions are written.

If Murray did not know this off the top of his head, I didn’t feel so badly in not being able to divine the answer myself. But my bet is that the earlier generations of politicians who wrote the state laws on elections scripted them in such a way as to allow literary license and even hyperbole in ballot questions.

The post card-images of sleepy rural communities, with well-tended flower beds around stately Colonial and Victorian homes, differ from the raw statistics that come from our law-enforcement agencies.

Consider these numbers just compiled by the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office: Emergency 911 calls were up 35 percent in 2012 over the previous year. The number of criminal cases opened — 386 — represented an 18 percent increase form one year earlier. And the number of felony drug arrests — 30 — was up a staggering 229 percent.

Undersheriff Craig DuMond said he’s optimistic the disturbing trend will prompt the Delaware County Board of Supervisors to add a new deputy position to the department’s road patrol. The road patrol lost one member when Deputy John Demeo was reassigned to the criminal investigations division and became the department’s new handler of Ozzie, the agency’s first K-9 cop.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve encountered a number of occasions when boards or committees of public officials have gone into secret “executive sessions” for questionable reasons or blocked or delayed access to clearly public documents and information because it was inconvenient at that time to release the public information.

We know it can be a pain in the backside to deal with pesky reporters and cranky citizens impacted by government decisions. But it seems to us that this is part of the drill when you sign up for public service. There are laws that govern the level of access that must be granted to public meetings and records, and so it is refreshing to see that a primer on these laws has now been scheduled on this very topic at Milford Central School.

The workshop — titled Understanding the Freedom of Information and Public Meetings Law — will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 26. It will be conducted by attorney Douglas H. Zamelis of Springfield and Robert Nied, director of the Center for Sustainable Rural Communities, and is sponsored by several local groups and Zamelis.

JOE MAHONEY is a staff writer for The Daily Star. Contact him at jmahoney@thedailystar.com.