Albany Rolls the Dice on Casino Referendum
April 24, 2013
The advent of the 2013 political season in New York is inescapable. The Big Apple’s mayoral aspirants square off in nearly daily debates. Nassau’s Republican incumbent County Executive, Ed Mangano, is making sure to attend every little league game in his folksy campaign to fend off his predecessor, Tom Suozzi. Westchester Democrats are picking a challenger tonight for Rob Astorino, the incumbent Republican executive looking to challenge Governor Cuomo in 2014.
Upstate, Buffalo mayor Byron Brown kicked off his re-election effort last month and has $1.1 million banked to run his race. Lovely Warren is mounting a Democratic Primary against party-backed Tom Richards for mayor of Rochester. Stephanie Miner, the Syracuse mayor who tangled with Cuomo earlier this year over pension reform, is campaigning hard (while attracting some pushback from city employees upset with budget cuts).
But none of these races will attract the $150 million that will be spent persuading New Yorkers to support or oppose expanded casino gambling in a ballot referendum this November. Polling shows opinions divided.
You’d be right to feel in the dark. In order to permit Atlantic City-style gambling, thestate Constitution needs to be amended to eliminate it’s casino ban. That only happens when the state Legislature votes, for two consecutive years, to place the amendment before the voters. After the Legislature votes, a majority of those casting ballots at the polls is required for the amendment to be adopted.
But after painless passage in last year’s legislative session, lawmakers and the governor are haggling over where the casinos might open. There was no resolution of the matter before the state’s budget. And there is no viable bill right now.
With the State Capitol on high alert from scandal, and Cuomo grappling with high profile issues from strengthening the state’s abortion laws to fracking, public discussion on the casino question is muted. Rank and file legislators fear a repeat of the 2010 bid rigging scandal over gambling at the Aqueduct that cost the State Senate’s Democrats their majority, but don’t want to be shutout of the dealing on the lucrative casino licenses.
Expect a lot of drama on the topic between now and the end-of-legislative session,middle of the night vote that likely awaits whatever agreement is reached. The betting is that the referendum gets on the ballot.
New Yorkers are not used to major public policy referenda. Unlike California, which is virtually governed by referendum, New York does not have a statewide citizen-initiated policy process. The last ballot measure that really got voters going was New York City’s term limits referendum in 1993– famously superseded by the 2008 City Council vote allowing Mayor Bloomberg’s third term. That reversal is causing huge headaches for Speaker Chris Quinn in her quest for his job.
New York’s statewide ballot referenda tend to be on policy minutiae or increasing the state’s debt. Voters rejected holding a constitutional convention in 1977, but approved a Governor-Pataki backed $1.75 billion Environmental Bond Act in 1996. The electorate’s mood soured in 1997; 3 of 4 statewide referenda went down to defeat, including $2.4 billion in funding for school construction.
In 2003, a proposal to exempt small city school districts from constitutional debt limits failed, despite support from the influential teachers union. State voters faced two referenda in 2005: the $2.9 Rebuild and Renew New York Transportation Bond Act and a budget reform amendment. The bond act passed with 56% of the vote. The budget reform measure was resoundingly rejected; 65% of voters gave it a thumbs down.
The most recent statewide referenda, in 2009, attracted little notice and less interest. New Yorkers retroactively approved a power line along State Route 56 on six acres of forest preserve lands and allowed prisoners to perform volunteer work for nonprofits. Both measures got about 67% of the vote.
But who is voting?
57% of voters statewide skipped voting on the 2009 forest lands amendment. In New York City, which cast 35% of votes statewide in ’09, 81% of voters failed to vote on the amendment. Out of nearly 1.2 million voters who showed up to choose between Bill Thompson and Bloomberg, only 141,227 backed the measure. It’s now the law.
The victorious 2005 Transportation Bond was the reincarnation of a 2000 Transportaion Bond proposal that went down to defeat. Only 47% of voters supported the measure that year; 51% didn’t bother to vote on it all. They pulled the level for Al Gore and went home.
Of 15 statewide ballot questions in New York since 1996, nine passed; six were defeated.
So the smart money might be on a successful casino referendum– unless the voters actually pay attention.