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ALBANY – In two straight State of the State addresses, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made expansion of casino gambling one of his major themes.

Last spring, in pushing lawmakers to go along with his plan to permit up to seven new casinos, Cuomo spoke regularly and forcefully about the economic-development potential that new casinos would have on upstate.

But now, in the thick of the campaign season when casino expansion goes to a statewide referendum Nov. 5, Cuomo has been curiously silent on one of his top policy agenda items in the last two years.

Instead of personally claiming the benefits of more casinos, Cuomo has dispatched surrogates to do the work. Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy has been on a tour of upstate newspaper editorial boards carrying with him estimates of the millions of dollars that could be coming to schools and local governments if more casinos were built in New York.

Private-sector groups such as business organizations and unions are lobbying and spending, trying to persuade voters to approve the referendum.

But where is Cuomo when it comes to pushing an idea that was his?

With less than a month before Election Day, Cuomo has chosen to work behind the scenes, using advisers to help these surrogates shape messages and plan for a possible television advertising blitz in weeks right before Nov. 5.

‘Appearance of hands-off’

While the record is well-established that Cuomo wants more gambling in New York State, the head of an anti-gambling group says it’s no accident the governor has been absent from publicly promoting the casino plan at a key moment.

“I think he wants to have an appearance of hands-off,” said Stephen Q. Shafer, chairman of the Buffalo-based Coalition Against Gambling in New York.

Shafer believes that Cuomo was stung by reports that his administration was involved in efforts to rewrite the language of how the casino question appears on the November referendum ballot language, making the proposal sound more rosy than neutral.

“It’s possible the fracas about the rosy language has made him want to stand back a little bit,” Shafer said.

The administration says casino developments in other parts of the state would end up driving $93 million annually to schools and localities in Western New York and the Finger Lakes regions; $22 million would go to Erie County.

Critics say the numbers are bloated and don’t take into account the social ills that new gambling will cost in treatment, criminal justice and other systems.

There are numerous theories about Cuomo’s strategy. One is that casino expansion is ahead slightly in public and private polls and that it would be better for the governor to run a stealth campaign so as not to stir up opposition.

The opposition groups, including church organizations, are not spending any major amounts of money, while casino, business and labor interests have recently talked of raising $5 million and running a statewide get-out-the-vote effort using top union political operatives and their phone, mail and other campaign tools.

Another theory is that Cuomo is merely timing his personal effort to occur closer to the referendum and in areas of the state where he has high popularity.

Anti-casino groups acknowledged that Cuomo’s silence during the campaign season so far has likely reduced the number of news stories that would have then naturally driven reporters to the opponents to balance the governors’ position.

Casino advocates who also hope to become developers of future casinos say they are not worried that Cuomo has not personally taken a public role lately and that his administration is directing the efforts of surrogates.

“He seems, to me, as engaged as a governor would normally be about a constitutional ballot issue. He’s been very positive and supportive throughout,” said James D. Featherstonhaugh, an Albany lobbyist and part owner of a Saratoga Springs racetrack likely to be in the mix for a Las Vegas-style casino if the referendum is approved.

Other advocates say that Cuomo will be involved soon and that it makes sense for him to roll out surrogates before he hits the trail.

“Yes, if the governor was upfront, it would help,” said Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow, a Westchester County Democrat who is chairman of the Assembly’s Racing and Wagering Committee.

Pretlow offered another possible explanation: “I don’t think the polls are showing overwhelming support, and I don’t think he wants to be on the side of something that might not pass, not that I think it won’t pass,” Pretlow said.

A few weeks ago, State Sen. John J. Bonacic, a Catskills-area Republican who heads the Senate’s Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, openly wondered why Cuomo wasn’t doing more to promote the casino issue. Wednesday, in a statement, he said, Cuomo “is doing what needs to be done.”

“I don’t think these pro-gaming coalitions are appearing magically. These folks are Cuomo supporters,” he said.

The first public round of surrogates-for-casinos event was held Wednesday in Buffalo – a region barred from getting any of the new casinos under the governor’s plan because of the deal Cuomo struck with the Seneca Nation of Indians earlier this year to preserve its gambling exclusivity in the area.

But Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, Western New York Building Trades Council President Paul Brown and others used the numbers floated by the governor’s Budget Office to try to convince Western New Yorkers to vote for the referendum.

Facing challenge in court

There also are other considerations for Cuomo, insiders say.

One is that his job-approval rating with voters is down to their lowest levels since taking office, especially with voters upstate. So he might have to choose carefully where to lobby for the casino.

Also, a governor is not legally supposed to spend state money promoting a ballot issue, critics note.

That will be one of the issues a state judge will hear today in Albany in a case brought by a Brooklyn lawyer seeking to have the referendum pulled from the ballot, in part because state officials used state time to create the non-neutral-sounding ballot question.

State officials are allowed by law to “educate” voters about a ballot measure, as Cuomo’s Budget Office did recently when it released revenue estimates from casino development. But state officials or agencies are restricted in using state money to “promote” a ballot initiative.

There would, however, be nothing to stop Cuomo from using some of the $28 million in his own campaign account to promote passage of the referendum.

Cuomo told reporters that he would work to pass the referendum.

“He can’t do it using state resources,” said Eric J. Snyder, the Brooklyn lawyer seeking to halt the ballot initiative.

“Everyone has a right to state their position on a particular issue,” Snyder said, “but when it crosses the line into spending state money to become an advocate for an issue, that’s when, I think, the constitutional prohibition of spending public funds on a constitutional amendment comes into play.”

email: tprecious@buffnews.com