Anti-gambling forces fear that the economic losses from Superstorm Sandy could help efforts to expand casino gambling in New York.
State lawmakers were already expected to consider a gambling amendment to the state constitution next year before Sandy walloped New York City and Long Island in late October. If the measure clears the Legislature for a second time in 2013, voters could make a final decision on whether to OK Las Vegas-style casinos beyond Indian land as early as November.
Proponents have long claimed the gambling expansion could provide the state with an economic boost, an argument that could resonate as the state seeks to rebuild after Sandy.
"I think it does change it a little bit. It makes our task harder because legislators who may have been on the fence are going to be desperate to raise revenues," said Joel Rose, outgoing chairman of the Coalition Against Gambling in New York. "I think it's an easier sell so we have to work harder to defeat it."
President Barack Obama last week asked Congress for a $60 billion relief package for states hit by Sandy — a shared pot that would give New York less than the $42 billion Gov. Andrew Cuomo had sought. New York was already facing recession-related fiscal problems before the storm.
A second legislative vote on the amendment, which is required to change the constitution, is not expected for months and other issues are getting more attention lately at the state Capitol. Cuomo, when asked last week about whether the storm helps efforts to expand casino gambling, said "I don't see that connection." Lawmakers involved in the issue said much the same.
"I would proceed in the exact same way if Sandy had not happened," said Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow, a Westchester Democrat who is chairman of the chamber's Racing and Wagering Committee.
Still, gambling opponents note Sandy could provide an irresistible rationale for plans to expand gambling. They point to the approval of video slot machines for New York race tracks after the Sept. 11 attacks. State leaders then explained they were "desperate" for revenue.
"I do think that you will see legislators who will try to use the leverage of Hurricane Sandy similar to what they did after 9/11. They'll say 'My gosh, we've got to get out of this mess. The only answer is gambling,'" said Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and a gambling opponent.
Although lawmakers approved the dramatic expansion of gambling less than two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, New York's first "racino" did not debut until several years later. Likewise, any new expansion of gambling would not provide immediate revenue in 2013, given the November vote.
"Right now, the governor and the Legislature are trying to deal with an immediate problem. This issue is not quite so immediate," said James Featherstonhaugh, president of the New York Gaming Association.
Featherstonhaugh, who represents New York's nine horse tracks with video slots, added that his members could gear up quickly in 2014 if tracks are allowed to offer table games.
Sen. John J. Bonacic, chairman of the Senate Committee on Racing, Wagering and Gaming, said he believes there is a willingness among lawmakers to approve the amendment next year, expressing a common belief. The more contentious issue could be the companion legislation that spells out where up to seven casinos could be located. And there is uncertainty about whether New York voters would approve the constitutional change.
"In this business, every day is a different snapshot, and that's November 2013," Bonacic said.
A poll this summer by Siena College found 52 percent of likely voters supporting an amendment to expand Las Vegas-style casinos. But Siena's Steven Greenberg expects to see fluctuations in public support as the debate heats up and interests on both sides gear up for what is expected to be expensive public campaigns.
"While for many downstate residents Sandy is still going to be very much alive in their memory banks," Greenberg said, "I don't think that many people are going to make a decision on whether to support or oppose a casino amendment based on Sandy."