New Yorkers rolled the dice ten years ago when they voted to amend the state Constitution and give lawmakers broad permission to allow casino gambling. Now, as the Legislature prepares to authorize new downstate casinos, some voters who supported the amendment are discovering they came up snake-eyes.

Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2013 promised New Yorkers destination casinos in upstate locales desperate for jobs and local revenue, and the Legislature passed a law allowing up to seven statewide, conditional on voters approving the necessary constitutional amendment.

The amendment made no promises about how the funds would be spent, but the question on the ballot asked voters to “allow the Legislature to authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.” (The Albany County Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit challenging the ballot proposal for containing improper pro-amendment advocacy in the weeks before election day.)

The focus at the time was on allowing casinos upstate, which had lagged the rest of the state, and the nation, in job creation. A less-noticed provision of the amendment, though, allowed casinos to open downstate after seven years, permission state officials are looking to use now.

But as they do, the governor and state lawmakers are making a big departure from what voters authorized. Hochul and the Assembly in their budget bills want to use downstate casino revenue to subsidize the MTA, while the Senate has proposed giving the MTA a cut of a new casino’s initial licensing fees.

Casino gambling needed a vote because New Yorkers amended the state Constitution in 1894 to ban all forms of gambling. Amendments made exceptions for lotteries and pari-mutuel betting on horse races. A later Court of Appeals decision okayed video lottery terminals. But casino gambling could not exist in New York without that 2013 constitutional amendment.

The 2013 amendment process tested the bounds of transparency and the rule of law. Under the rule of law, laws must be made in an open and transparent way by the people—either directly through constitutional amendments or indirectly through laws passed by their elected representatives. Such transparency gives members of society the right to participate in the creation of laws that regulate their behavior and govern their actions.

Here, voters who in good faith depended on the ballot description for the casino gambling amendment aren’t getting the return they were promised. New Yorkers would be wise to make a don’t-pass bet on future amendments unless they have searched for and read the fine print.

About the Author

Cam Macdonald

Cameron J. “Cam” Macdonald is an Adjunct Fellow with the Empire Center and Executive Director and General Counsel for the Government Justice Center.

Read more by Cam Macdonald

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