ALBANY – A push by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the casino industry to dramatically expand gambling in New York State scored a major victory Wednesday when a state judge tossed out a lawsuit seeking to strip the referendum question from the Nov. 5 statewide ballot.
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Richard M. Platkin ruled that the lawsuit filed by a Brooklyn lawyer came too late and lacked merit. The decision, unless overturned in an appeal, clears the way for voters to decide if they want to let New York build up to seven Las Vegas-style casinos.
The judge rejected the lawsuit’s contention that the state illegally sought to influence voters by selecting rosy-sounding language for the Proposition One casino ballot over the usual, neutral words to describe ballot questions.
An allegation that the state Board of Elections illegally changed ballot language submitted to the board by State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman “is both untimely and lacking in legal merit,” the judge wrote in the decision. Contentions that the state’s Open Meetings Law was violated by the board “is conclusively defeated by documentary evidence,” according to the decision. In a footnote, the judge said he “expressed no view” on one of the major contentions – that the board intentionally selected wording to influence voters – because the state did not challenge it.
Eric J. Snyder, of Brooklyn, an attorney who heads a commercial bankruptcy division for a Manhattan law firm, said he filed his lawsuit last month after getting upset by media accounts that described how the Board of Elections in July rejected neutral-sounding language for the casino question.
Instead, the ballot devised by the board and other state officials asks voters if they want to approve up to seven new commercial casinos in New York “for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.”
After the ruling, Snyder said he was “shocked” that the court dismissed his contention that the Board of Elections vote was done in secret “when the Board of Elections did not even seek dismissal of that claim.”
Snyder said he will file an immediate challenge to an appellate court.
Critics say the manner in which the Board of Elections settled on the ballot wording amounted to an illegal use of state resources to try to influence a proposed change in the state constitution. The state constitution now bans full Las Vegas-style casinos – complete with traditional slot machines and table games such as poker – on non-Indian lands.
The Board of Elections, as required, notified county elections boards of the ballot language but did not post the information on its website for the public to see until weeks later – past a 14-day deadline for legal challenges to the board’s actions. The board offered a couple of excuses, including the illness of a worker, for the delay in posting the ballot language on its website.
The wording of the ballot question is akin to a push poll, critics contend. Indeed, a recent Siena Research Institute poll showed the effects of word selection. When asked simply if they approve or disapprove of New York adding casinos, registered voters were split at 46 percent apiece. But when the rosier language – as appears on the ballot – was used, support rose to 55 percent, and opposition declined to 42 percent.
The first four new casinos would be limited, with some possible loopholes, to three upstate regions, excluding those such as Western New York that have gambling exclusivity deals with Indian tribes.
The governor’s Budget Office estimates that four casinos would bring $430 million in projected new revenues to the state and local governments, much of it for public schools. But opponents say the projections are bloated and do not take into account the social costs the casinos will bring to communities in the way of gambling addiction, crime and traffic.
John W. Conklin, a Board of Elections spokesman, said his agency will continue moving ahead during any appeals process with preparations for a vote on the casino proposition.
The Governor’s Office declined to comment.
The New York Public Interest Research Group, which has not taken sides in the casino issue, said in a statement:
“We’re disappointed that the judge chose to block a legitimate discussion on the merits of whether the state gamed the language of the casino amendment to tilt New Yorkers to a yes vote.”