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Sports gambling measure facing wall in Assembly

ALBANY – A measure to legalize sports wagering in New York is on life support in the Legislature, the state Legislature's top Democrat said Thursday as there appears not to be enough support Assembly Democrats who control the chamber to pass the legislation.

Supported by top Senate Republicans, the issue has run into a wall among some Assembly Democrats, who met as a group in private on Wednesday to discuss the issue.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, has not jumped to push sports gambling, and he has said he would withhold judgment until he got a sense from his fellow Assembly Democrats about the matter.

That sense came flowing during a private, lengthy meeting Wednesday evening with Democrats in the chamber.

"Members raised significant issues so I would say at this point there isn't enough support within the Democratic conference to go forward on the sports gambling" bill, Heastie said Thursday.

Asked if things could change before next Wednesday's end of session, Heastie said, "I don't ever want to say 'never say never.' ''

However, he quickly added, "With the broad spectrum of concerns that members raised, I don't know if that can be resolved.''

Pro sports leagues, casino interests, racetracks, off-track betting companies and off-shore betting companies are all engaged in a furious lobbying push to get sports wagering legalized in New York State. Delaware and New Jersey are two nearby states that have since started offering sports betting in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that lifted a federal ban on the wagering.

Bills pending in the Assembly and Senate would permit sports wagering at four commercial casinos, at kiosks at racetrack-based casino operations, as well as via online platforms so that people could place a bet on their phones, tablets and home computers anywhere in New York State.

Assembly Democrats have expressed concerns about adding more gambling in a state that has sharply increased government-sanctioned wagering in recent years, worsening gambling addiction problems, and issues about the integrity of sports contests being damaged by potential betting scandals. Critics in the Legislature also say they do not want pro sports leagues, representing wealthy sports owners, to get a share of the sports wagering revenues in New York as pending bills would permit.

Privately, lawmakers also note the timing of the sports wagering push by pro leagues comes after the NFL’s recent ban on take-a-knee protests by players during the national anthem -- a move not sitting well with some minority lawmakers in the Assembly Democratic conference.

“In the first game of the NBA final, if we had sports gambling, everybody would have thought that player threw the game," said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat. She said sports integrity issues are not “in any way” addressed in the sports gambling bill pending in the Legislature.

Glick said she understands people will continue to wager illegally on sports contests if the state does not act. “There are lots of things that we don’t sanction in the state that people are doing. It’s the weakest argument that you can make," the lawmaker said today.

The Supreme Court’s lifting of the federal ban does not persuade lawmakers like Glick. “Not everything that the Supreme Court has done are things that we embrace," Glick said.

There are only three work days left in the 2018 legislative session. In Albany time, that can be a lifetime, especially given the huge presence of pro-sports gambling interests, a who’s who of domestic and international companies that have hired some of the most politically wired lobbying firms in the state.

Senator John Bonacic, a Hudson Valley Republican and sponsor of the Senate sports gambling bill, said Thursday that he and the Assembly sponsor, Westchester Democratic Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, are putting in amendments to try to address criticism raised by both gambling interests and lawmakers who have raised various concerns.

The amendments will reduce from two to one the number of online sports betting platforms that a New York gambling licensee can offer to bettors, lower the take by pro sports leagues from .25 percent of 1 percent to .15 percent of 1 percent of revenues while lifting a proposed cap on what pro sports leagues could make on New York sports wagers. He said the state would get between $10 million to $30 million in tax revenues if the betting is legalized.

Bonacic said he expects “there will be much more pressure exerted after the weekend on the Assembly” to try to win over fence-sitting Assembly Democrats. Even if Assembly opposition weakens, partisan wrangling in the Senate could keep a final deal from happening there. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not taken a formal position on the issue.

“It will be a lost opportunity for New York to tax the industry, to regulate it and to put consumer protections in place, and to create a bigger (revenue) pot for education,’’ Bonacic said when told of the Assembly Speaker’s concerns. He said sports gamblers will find alternatives – whether at Native American casinos, such as the Seneca Nation of Indians, or nearby states that either have or are likely to legalize the betting. Much of sports betting is already done illegally online.

New York in 2013 legalized – but did not implement pending federal action – sports gambling at four new commercial casinos in upstate, including an under-performing casino in Seneca County between Syracuse and Rochester. Per compact deals with the state and federal law, the three Native American tribes with casinos will also be able to offer sports wagering. Those facilities can’t, however, do anything until Cuomo’s Gaming Commission issues regulations and sports gambling licenses to the operators.

"It's not dead. It's still alive,'' Pretlow, the Assembly sponsor, said Thursday. Pretlow said, for instance, he is working on reluctant legislators who raised constitutional questions about the legality of offering online sports wagering and self-serve kiosks at racetracks and OTB parlors for sports bettors. He said the members of the National Football League Players Association, and possible other pro player groups, are due at the Capitol next week to help with the last-ditch lobbying effort.

"I think that there's time to convince people sitting on the fence. I also think the governor might want to take credit for this but I don't think we're getting that much support from the second floor,'' Pretlow said of the floor where the governor and his staff are based at the Capitol.

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