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Casino Referendum Wording Increases Odds That Amendment Will Pass, Say Critics

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This November, voters in New York will decide whether the state will allow up to seven new resort style gambling casinos, when they have the choice of saying yes or no to an amendment.  But the wording of the actual referendum on the ballot may increase the odds of the new casinos being approved.

Most ballot referendums proposing constitutional changes are written in very drab, and even confusing language.  But the proposal to change the state’s constitution to allow up to seven new gambling casinos is different.

It says the amendment would allow the legislature to authorize up to seven casinos for the purpose of “promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated."  The word gambling is never mentioned.

“It’s more spin than a roulette wheel,” says Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group.  “They could just have easily just put a period after the words 'seven casinos,' because that’s all the constitutional amendment does.”

The actual wording of the change to article 1 section 9 of the state’s constitution is to allow “casino gambling at no more than seven facilities as authorized and prescribed by the legislature”.  Any predictions of how the casinos might benefit New Yorkers are left out.

Horner says lawmakers could justify adding the favorable descriptions because they also passed a bill that accompanies the constitutional change. It says that some of the money expected to be generated from the casinos would be directed to schools and local governments.  And presumably, the casino owners would need to hire workers to run them.

Dr. Stephen Shafer, a retired physician who runs the Coalition Against Gambling in New York, says he first learned of the wording of the referendum when an Associated Press reporter called him.

"I was horrified by the extreme degree of bias,” Shafer said.

Shafer says he and other anti gambling advocates immediately researched the laws governing the wording of ballot amendments, and discovered that lawmakers do have lots of “wiggle room”.

Shafer says it’s equally true that adding more gambling facilities could increase the number of gambling addicts in New York, but he says that isn’t mentioned in the referendum.

“With all addictions, convenience creates opportunities for exposure and for the development of addiction and problem gambling,” Shafer said.

And he says it’s an open question whether additional casinos will promote additional job growth or not. In places like Atlantic City, for instance, surrounding business have actually suffered by being near the casinos.  

Right now, no one is taking credit for the wording of the casino amendment proposal. A spokesman for the State Board of Elections says the two Democratic and two Republican Commissioners on the board talked among themselves, and decided unanimously on the language. Spokesman John Conklin  says the commissioners also decided that the casino gambling expansion referendum should be the first one of six proposals that voters will see on the November ballot.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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