A gambling proposal up for public approval Tuesday is either a “godsend” for New York City schools, or a “bill of goods” filled with false promises. It just depends on whom you’re talking to.
The proposed amendment to the state constitution would allow the construction of up to seven Las Vegas-style casinos in New York State beyond those that already operate on American Indian reservations. Much of the tax revenue from the casinos would be funneled into city schools, which state budget officials have estimated could see as much as $94 million in annual revenue.
“This will be a godsend and gift for our children in our educational system,” Keith Wright, a state assemblyman and co-chair of the state’s Democratic party, said last week.
But others are lobbying against the proposal, cautioning that the promised dividends to schools might well be exaggerated.
The $94 million figure came from the State Budget Office, which based its estimate on the construction of four new casino resorts. It would represent a little more than 1 percent of the $8.5 billion in school aid that city schools are receiving from the state this year.
The ballot measure has pitted traditional allies against one another and lined up unlikely coalitions. Labor unions and business groups have joined Wright in support, saying the casinos, whose construction would be limited to upstate regions at first, can boost economic and job growth in parts of the state in decline. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and both New York City mayoral candidates are on board with the measure.
The United Federation of Teachers jumped on board too, giving $250,000 to a pro-casino group to raise awareness for the issue ahead of the vote.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew held a press conference at union headquarters last week, where he said the extra funding would be helpful at a time when it’s needed the most. Annual school aid increases, he said, have not kept pace with new requirements from the state to adopt Common Core standards and more complicated teacher evaluations.
“The schools need the revenue,” Mulgrew said. “The schools absolutely need the revenue.”
But some organized opposition exists. Not far away from the UFT event last Thursday, a group was at City Hall making their case for why the amendment should be voted down. They included anti-gambling conservative groups and liberal Democrats who oppose gambling on moral grounds; fear a rise in the influence of casino lobbying; and worry that loopholes that could allow lawmakers to slip out of some of the early promises.
“There will be no requirement that the money be spent on the education,” said State Sen. Liz Krueger, of Manhattan. “That could be changed tomorrow.”
Krueger said that she would have been more likely to support the amendment if it mandated that the gambling tax revenues went exclusively to education, as the rules associated with the New York State lottery mandate. She said she was also concerned that lawmakers would find ways to use the new gambling tax revenue to replace other state educating funding streams, rather than add to them, which is what critics say has happened with the lottery in recent years.
“It is very easy to do a bait and switch the way this whole thing has been set up,” Krueger said.
But Mulgrew said that he was confident that the new revenue would prevent any future reductions in school aid. ”They can’t say we’re going to cut education with this additional revenue,” he said.
Krueger, who is a frequent ally of Mulgrew, said she wants more state money earmarked for education. She just doesn’t think the amendment on Tuesday’s ballot is the best way to make that happen.
“I just think that some people don’t understand that they’re being sold a bill of goods,” she said.
In New York City, polls show that voters generally support the amendment, but they say they wouldn’t want a casino developed in any of the five boroughs.