Suit Says Rosy Casino Referendum Rewording Done Illegally

ALBANY (AP/Hamodia) —

A referendum to expand casino gambling wasn’t just reworded with rosy benefits, it was approved illegally in secret, according to a lawyer seeking to stop Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal.

Brooklyn lawyer Eric Snyder said that the Board of Elections didn’t vote publicly to add promises of jobs, tax breaks and school aid — which are disputed. Critics say the uncommon language in the Nov. 5 referendum unfairly advocates for passage of an issue that has split New York voters in polls, noting it doesn’t mention the threats of addiction, crime or other social costs.

The transcript of the Board of Elections’ July 29 meeting quotes co-chairman Douglas Kellner as proposing to the board that “we further provide that the co-executive directors are authorized to make further revisions on consultation by telephone with the commissioners up until the actual certification date, which is next Monday.” The motion was unanimously approved.

The official record also states the board unanimously agreed to authorize the co-executive directors to make further revisions after the public meeting.

If the Board of Elections is found to have not voted for the change or to have violated the Open Meetings Law, the action needed to make the referendum valid would be void and that could block it from the ballot.

“A meeting cannot validly be held by telephone nor can voting occur over the phone,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government. Freeman says the law and court rulings specifically require government meetings to be in the presence of each other in an open setting so the public can see who may be “whispering in their ear.” The law now allows for valid public meetings by video, but officials must be visible to the public, he said.

He also said a quorum that consists of a majority of all board members — not selected members — must be present to make decisions.

“That is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the taxpayers of the state of New York,” said state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long, who opposed the casino referendum. “It really is a fraud.”

Referenda are supposed to summarize a law passed by the Legislature to change the constitution. The measure written by Cuomo and the Legislature lists its purposes as “promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.” The added benefits of tax breaks and school aid, however, aren’t listed in the law.

A Siena College poll found the rosy wording worked. Voters were split on the issue at 46 percent when read the straight wording, but approval rose to 55 percent when voters were read the revised wording.

The issue gets its first court date Friday in state Supreme Court in Albany.

Meanwhile, a study released Tuesday suggests that gambling’s overall impact on the state may be negative. Rather than more jobs and tax revenue, the Manhattan-based Institute for American Values found that living in proximity to a casino doubles the likelihood of becoming a “problem gambler,” on whom casinos depend for 40 to 60 percent of their revenues.

The lives and livelihoods of problem gamblers are adversely affected by their betting. While they are not necessarily the heavy gamblers who are pathological, casino machines are programmed to hook them. The machines figure out betting patterns and provide just enough in rewards to keep a person hooked for hours.

The study claims that about 5 percent of adults, and 10 percent of students in grades 7 through 12, experienced problem gambling that required therapy.

The American Gaming Association, which lobbies for the industry, disagrees with the study. They calculate that just 1 percent have pathological addictions and that the other 99 percent should have the “entertainment they desire.”

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