WGXC-90.7 FM

Catskill casinos a Hail Mary?

Nov 29, 2010 12:19 pm
Veteran state commentator Fred LeBrun of the Times Union has a strong piece about both the chances of approval for Governor Paterson's last-ditch attempt to get a casino approved in Sullivan County, despite federal antipathy to the idea, as well as the implications of what he terms a "Hail Mary" economic development move. Save it for incoming Governor Andrew Cuomo, LeBrun says, while noting that similar attempts to bring gambling to the region have failed since Cuomo 1 a quarter century ago.

Read the entire piece... and then hold off on this story for a few months, at least. Did anyone mention that this may be a diversion of some sort?

Catskills casino deal a bad bet
Fred LeBrun Commentary
Published: 05:00 a.m., Monday, November 29, 2010

About the best thing that can be said for Governor Paterson's surprise announcement of a $700 million casino deal in the Catskills with the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans is that the chances of it materializing are in the realm of when pigs fly.

That said, given the blossoming state of genetic recombination that's already given us Dolly the cloned sheep, we can't rule out the chance a particularly gifted hog may yet pursue a career in aviation. That's a worry.

But this casino and the hog face roughly the same odds, the longest of long shots.

And as far as the casino goes, that's a good thing.

Where to begin on why this is such a lousy idea? First and foremost, consider the source; actually, the sources.

The last thing an ethically challenged governor like David Paterson should be doing is making deals of any kind with anybody as he's walking out the door. The inspector general savaged him and his top lieutenants for their handling of the Aqueduct gaming bid process, and that's only one of several negative ethical evaluations Paterson has gotten in his brief tenure as governor.

Frankly, he hasn't got the moral standing at this point to make a gambling deal on behalf of the state. He should have passed it all off to the next governor, who does have that standing. There are so many complicated land claims and counterclaims, and proposed casinos by a half-dozen tribes more or less on the table at the same time that to strike impulsively, as he has, is to invite paralysis rather than resolution of a very complicated process. A resolution that has eluded governors all the way back to Cuomo I.

The other source to consider is the Stockbridge-Munsees. They brought their rather tenuous land claim a whopping 24 years ago. Until now, it wasn't taken all that seriously by the state or other tribes. What Paterson's people have done is elevate the Wisconsin-based tribe's land claims above others far more deserving as a matter of strategic convenience to attempt an end run around prevailing federal rules. Approval of where an Indian casino is located has been entirely in the hands of Congress or the U.S. Department of the Interior. For the feds to willingly give up this authority to individual states, which is what New York is attempting through a land-claim settlement, is up there with the pigs again.

Then again, why do we want to give a franchise to print money to a Wisconsin-based tribe in the first place? That makes no sense at all.

Now, I make no bones about being a steadfast opponent of the glib notion that a casino will save the Catskills' economy. This is Hail Mary economics at its worst. For me, the downsides of casinos preying on the poor and those eager for a quick fix outweigh the attractions of the money spigot that beguiles the shortsighted politician. On moral grounds, I think we invite more problems than we solve.

Sure, there's that great big New York City market to tap into, just dripping with disposable income.

But I thought we just approved, after an overly long and embarrassing process, an elaborate gaming deal at Aqueduct to relieve the Gothamites of their loose change. I have no special fondness for the Aqueduct crowd either, but aren't we betting against ourselves with the Catskill deal?

What I'm getting at is that we have yet to see a holistic state gaming plan that would put all of our casino and gaming aspirations into some understandable perspective. The Legislature, remember, in all its wisdom, approved three casinos for the Catskills. We certainly have enough experience with casinos in this state to answer questions such as, does the local economy really rebound from their presence as advocates claim? How much money does the state really collect? Can we do better? What are the best deals other states have made with their gambling tribes? What are the real problems casinos create for their surrounding geography?

If this were any other comparable business about to be franchised by the state, we'd have a business plan, a social impact plan and a thorough environmental assessment.

Instead, we know squat about what we can expect, from this proposal and the inevitable proposals to come. The vision of easy money mesmerizes governments even more than addicted gamblers.

A big reason I wish Paterson had left this alone is that Andrew Cuomo will be 10 times smarter about dealing with this issue. He is inclined to create broad-based commissions to lay the foundation for policy, before making any deals. That's exactly what's need with casinos in the Catskills.

Just a few years ago, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed a similar deal for a Catskills casino with the Mohawks from up north. Like the current proposal with the Mohicans, the tribe in question never had a reservation anywhere near the proposed casino site. So the Spitzer-Mohawk deal stalled. Such proximity has been a condition of granting a casino by the feds in the past, and I can only hope that will continue to be the case.

At least until we can get our act together.

Contact Fred LeBrun at 454-5453 or by e-mail at flebrun@timesunion.com.