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Poll shows growing support for expanding casino gambling in state

ALBANY – A decision earlier this summer by state officials to shine a positive light on plans to dramatically expand casino gambling in New York State is apparently working with voters, according to a poll released Monday.

The Siena College Research Institute found that the proposal to amend the State Constitution had a split reaction among voters – 49 percent for and 49 percent against – when they were only asked if they back an effort to build new casinos on non-Indian lands in New York.

But when the question was asked using the same language as will appear on the ballot, the number jumps to 55 percent in support, and 42 percent opposing it. The ballot measure, after tweaks at the state Board of Elections in July, asks voters whether they would approve the casino expansion “for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.”

The wording of the ballot measure has been criticized by anti-gambling groups as akin to a push poll in which questions are tilted toward one side on an issue. Siena, though, said that most voters it polled called the question fair.

The November ballot will ask New Yorkers if they want to allow up to seven new, full-blown casinos, complete with real slot machines and table games like poker, to be located at undetermined sites in the state. A separate piece of legislation has said the first four will be located upstate, though not in three large areas, including Western New York, that are home to Indian casino operations.

When asked simply if they approve or disapprove of the casino expansion plan, the idea got its weakest support in New York City, where turnout could be larger than normal this year because of a mayoral race. In New York City, 41 percent said they back the idea, with 49 percent opposing it. In upstate, support was strongest: 49 percent said yes to the casino expansion, and 43 percent oppose it.

But when the longer – or “rosier” – question about the casino expansion effort was asked of poll respondents, the New York City numbers jumped up to 52 percent backing it, and 43 percent opposing it. Upstate, 55 percent said yes to the question, and 44 percent said no. In the New York City suburbs, 60 percent support the idea, and 39 percent don’t want casinos despite the claims, as the ballot question states, of new job growth and more money for education.

Hours after release of the poll, business, labor, government and other officials announced they are forming a statewide coalition to push for passage of the casino proposal.

The group said the increased gambling ventures will bring to New York betting revenues now wagered in other states and provide jobs and more than $400 million in new revenues earmarked for the state’s public school funding program. It claimed New Yorkers now spend $3 billion annually in out-of-state bets.

The new coalition includes leaders from the Business Council of New York, New York State Building and Construction Trades Council, state AFL-CIO, United Federation of Teachers, as well as Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and former Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas.

The poll, though, did show an interesting challenge for casino supporters to get their vote out on Election Day in November as well as an opportunity for casino critics to exploit: Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they would be upset or very upset if the casino referendum passes, while 40 percent said they would be upset or very upset it it fails.

The poll was released as a New York City-based nonpartisan think tank that focuses on family and civil society issues put out its second report in two weeks criticizing the state’s push for more gambling. The Institute for American Values said New York officials are “fleecing” residents by trying to convince them that the casinos will provide such benefits as jobs and big revenues for the state.

“The governor talks with comic-book hyperbole about ripple effects and super-charges and resorts and convention centers and boosting upstate tourism. But he knows – everyone paying any attention to this issue knows – that the gambling initiative is about New York’s government getting the money,” said the report released by David Blankenhorn, the group’s president. The organization has been providing research material to gambling opposition groups, including church-based and other grassroots efforts, to try to persuade voters to oppose the ballot question.

The group criticized state officials for not backing up any of their cost-benefit claims with studies or research and said they have ignored the social and economic costs that they say will be associated with expanding more options for gambling.

“It’s thuggish for our political leaders to insist that we change our constitution without bothering to tell us why. It’s thuggish to justify a major new public policy on the basis of nothing more than a few PR slogans and jingles,” the report said.

The group said the position of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in proposing the casino expansion stands in sharp contrast to the misgivings his father, Mario Cuomo, had toward casino gambling when he was governor in the 1980s and 1990s. But it was Mario Cuomo who cut the deal with the Central New York-based Oneida Indian Nation that paved the way for the first agreement for a Las Vegas-style casino in New York State.

The poll and report come as casino proponents are still devising plans for an advertising campaign to try to push the amendment with voters. The people associated with the effort said they are considering a last-minute ad campaign in the final two or three weeks leading up to Election Day. Backers recently said they also are hoping to convince Cuomo, who has been largely silent on the topic after being the first to push the idea nearly two years ago, to get more engaged in a pro-casino campaign.