After four months of inaction, the State Assembly suddenly seems ready to approve a deal that would bring gambling casinos to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Because of resistance from the governor and elsewhere, the agreement is not expected to guarantee either city a large cut from the proceeds. Without such a benefit, a casino still might make sense in Niagara Falls -- but one in Buffalo would do the city no favors.
Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, said Friday that he believes legislation may be approved early next week and that, to his dismay, it almost certainly won't include a provision for a healthy local share of revenues. Instead, he said, it is liable to closely mirror the Senate version that passed within days of the governor's announcement in June. That bill would provide Buffalo less than 1 percent of total casino revenues.
Tokasz says he is working to insert language that requires future discussion about that issue. Given previous statements from Gov. George E. Pataki's office, that's not good enough.
For anyone who believes Buffalo needs to share in the direct benefits of a casino, accepting a minimum guarantee of revenue-sharing negotiations is a dangerous course. Government does not easily give up money it already has. Language that requires only discussion does not guarantee results.
Once a compact is signed, and Buffalo is bought off with nothing more than a few crumbs, all the governor and Legislature have to do is -- nothing. Left with empty words and an empty treasury, this city could be denied the best opportunity it has had in decades to reverse its declining fortunes.
The private sector, working at the behest of Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, last month unveiled a dramatic and ambitious plan to remake the city. The plan would use casino revenues as a springboard to more widespread investment that would eventually restore elements of the city's radial street design, bury a two-mile of I-190 that now blocks access to the lake, and launch many other significant civic improvements.
But the $800 million vision relies on two important state actions: dedicating a lion's share of casino revenues to the city and creating a public authority to oversee the projects, thereby ensuring these locally-generated funds are not simply thrown into the city's general fund, thence to be frittered away.
The key point is that Buffalo is not merely seeking to keep casino money -- it is seeking to keep casino money to finance a much wider redevelopment plan that could be vitally important to the future of the city and, in turn, generate much more tax revenue for both the city and the state.
Albany, it is fair to say, has been dealing with more urgent issues since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The Buffalo plan is not as widely known in state circles as it should be, and it doesn't look like the city strategy will get proper review before a casino vote.
But it is important for municipal leaders, and the entire Western New York legislative delegation to ensure that state leaders clearly understand the importance of this matter to Western New York. Without overstating the case, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Buffalo.
Albany, of course, is facing its own problems, as tax revenues have dried up since the Sept. 11 attacks. With state leaders saying there simply aren't enough dollars to go around, Buffalo and other cities are liable to receive less financial aid than they were counting on in this budget cycle. To be sure, it's a real problem, one that is bound to cause pain around the state.
But it is unconscionable for Albany to say on the one hand that it can't send Buffalo any more money -- and to complain about the city's annual tin-cup routine -- and on the other to deny it a chance to keep new revenues that will be generated within this community.
Although a casino deal can't be blocked by the city, the Seneca Nation might not wish to sign off on a locally-opposed deal and there also are local ordinances that could snarl casino development efforts. Buffalo should not accept a casino without solid assurance that much of the government's share of the take will stay here. The city doesn't need any of the social problems a casino might bring, simply so local gamblers could contribute more of their paychecks to the state's general revenue fund. There have to be guarantees that the city will not only have the resources to offset added community costs and address social needs, but a chance to parlay any casino venture into far wider civic revitalization that could help the city to a much more solid and much less state-dependent financial footing.
Buffalo can put casino-generated money to extraordinary use. If the state won't let it, its elected officials need to know Western New Yorkers will hold them accountable.