Campaign donations ban kept out of NY casino law

Cuomo's proposed ban on campaign contributions from gambling interests vanishes in casino law

Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- As New York moves to expand gambling, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have quietly deleted a proposed ban on accepting campaign contributions from casino operators.

Cuomo had said as recently as June 6 that he wanted to rid his casino proposal of politics. Albany's past expansions of gambling have resulted in some of Albany's biggest corruption scandals.

But the bill to authorize four casinos negotiated by Cuomo and legislative leaders that passed Friday night won't prohibit campaign contributions from gambling interests. Other proposals that died in the session that ended early Saturday included a package of anti-corruption laws and a plan to publicly finance campaigns with reduced limits on the size of donations and greater accountability.

All of those proposals were aimed at reducing the influence of big-money donors like gambling interests in decisions made by lawmakers.

"It's actually very pathetic," said Susan Lerner of Common Cause of New York. "We've had legislators led off in handcuffs, we have a significant number of Republicans and Democrats behind bars, and the only thing the Legislature is interested in doing is expanding gambling. That's some response to corruption."

In the past two years alone the gambling industry spent more than $2 million on campaign contributions in Albany and another $14 million on lobbying, Common Cause reported.

The campaign contributions included $242,000 to Cuomo; $404,000 to the state Republican Campaign Committee; $372,000 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee; $76,000 to Senate Racing and Wagering Committee Chairman John Bonacic, a Republican representing the Catskills where one or two casinos are likely be sited; and $59,000 to Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee Chairman Gary Pretlow, a Democrat from Yonkers where a harness track with a large video slot machine center is located.

In addition, the lobbying group formed to run promotional TV ads for Cuomo and his polices, the Committee to Save New York, received $2 million a year ago from gambling interests. The donations were made just weeks before Cuomo called for expansion of gambling.

The campaign contributors and their donations combined with their lobbying spending included $3.6 million from the New York Gaming Association, which operators harness tracks and video slot machine centers and eyed casinos; $3.3 million from Genting New York, which operates the large video slot machine center at Aqueduct race track and could expand to casinos in seven years; and $1.4 million from the Seneca Indian Nation, which operates a casino and may develop another in the Catskills.

Assembly majority spokesman Michael Whyland said Speaker Sheldon Silver had no problem with the contribution ban in an early draft of the measure, but the provision disappeared later.

Senate Republicans had argued that limiting campaign contributions may violate constitutional rights, backed up by some decisions in other states. The GOP majority had no comment Monday.

All of the negotiations were held behind closed doors.

"Some things we couldn't come to terms with," Cuomo said Monday in Rochester. Instead, he notes the law will require gambling interests to disclose to whom they contribute.

"There will be full disclosure on everything," Cuomo said.

The casino act passed by the Legislature and proposed and approved by Cuomo is subject to a public referendum in the fall. Voters will have to decide whether to amend the state constitution, which now prohibits full-fledged casinos with traditional slot machines and table games such as poker off Indian land.

Cuomo dropped his anti-corruption proposals paired with his proposal for public financing of campaigns after he said he couldn't get agreement with lawmakers. Cuomo, however, admitted he wasn't flexible to compromises sought by legislative leaders. Instead, Cuomo said he will order the creation of an investigatory commissioner who will analyze campaign contributions and spending, which is often at the heart of corruption cases in Albany, including several this spring.

"It attempts to keep the pressure up, but at the end of the day, results matter," Lerner said. "And results are getting changes in the law."

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