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Casino interests aren't leaving to Lady Luck the outcome of the debate in Albany over whether to legalize gambling and sprinkle more casinos around New York State. The owners and operators know better than to take those, so they're spending big money to buy access and influence.

And while that may be bad for a fair and open debate, it's very good for the legislators who can soak up the fountain of gambling money that helps pay the staggering costs of their election campaigns. Running for public office doesn't come cheap.

For them, the casino money is like hitting the jackpot of an overflowing slot machine. So far this year, these gambling interests have contributed at least $250,000 to Albany political committees and campaigns. When you've tossed in $5,000 or $10,000 to a candidate's campaign and want to chat on the phone about casinos, you're likely to reach the grateful recipient.

Take Donald Trump, who as the owner of casinos in New Jersey, is not thrilled at the thought of competing casinos sprouting up all around New York, including Niagara Falls. Trump has, not surprisingly, contributed about half the total contributions. Among other gifts, $75,000 went to Senate Democratic sources and another $25,000 to Assembly Democrats.

The figures reported in The News the other day show that those favoring casino gambling are being outspent by opponents. Donald Trump is a tough man to outspend.

Albany no doubt is learning lucrative lessons from all of this. Straddling the fence has certain blessings, for example, because you can then draw money from both sides as each tries to win you over. And it's surely better to milk the issue for as long as possible. Solving it would dry up the money.

There's a serious lesson for average New Yorkers, too. Requirements for public records of the gifts and the givers, riddled as they may be with loopholes, at least give people a glimpse of who's giving how much to whom.

And for what? Access and influence, of course. The last thing these money-bags want from Albany is a gambling decision based on the merits. Without the contributions, anyone can see the whole debate is a crap shoot.

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