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ALBANY – Pro-gambling interests have privately discussed spending up to $20 million on an advertising campaign to urge voters to pass the state’s greatest-ever expansion of casinos in a November referendum.

But some of the nation’s top casino companies and real estate developers looking to build gambling halls in New York State have a growing sense that they might have to open their wallets only slightly to win the referendum.

“There seems to be an inevitability about the passage of it. We’re just not seeing any opposition,” said Michael R. Treanor, an investor in a proposed casino and hotel project at a shuttered Catskills resort.

If that confidence is not overstated, and the referendum does pass, it would be due in no small measure to the fact that opponents are cash-starved and far from organized to wage a statewide battle against casino expansion. A variety of deep-pocket business and labor groups supports the plan that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers have approved.

For the casino expansion to happen, voters must first approve it in the referendum.

Opponents of expanded gambling say they plan to rely on a grass-roots – and inexpensive – effort using social media, church bulletins, email chains and the news media to promote their side of the issue.

“We took a small ad out in the Pennysaver in Sullivan County for $600. That’s about it,” said Stephen W. Shafer, chairman of the Buffalo-based Coalition Against Casino Gambling in New York.

But opponents face more than just at a money disadvantage. They say the battle is unfair because the gambling companies have the full support of state government.

While Cuomo is legally barred from spending state money to promote a yes vote on the referendum, the state can help in other ways.

In fact, state officials already have.

Consider the wording of the ballot measure. It doesn’t just ask voters to approve seven new casinos. It tells voters that by voting yes for the proposition, they would be “promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.”

Moreover, the governor took some of the wind out of the sails of the opposition by insisting on a clause that four gambling halls – three upstate and one on Long Island – will be built even if the referendum fails. Those facilities would not be able to offer table games as Las Vegas-style casinos might, but they would have devices known as video lottery terminals, or VLTs, which look, sound and play like slot machines.

Governor ‘very calculating’

“The governor is a very calculating man. He knows what he’s doing. This was one more way to undermine opposition because, no matter what happens, we’re going to have gambling expansion,” said the Rev. Jason J. McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. The conservative religious group has long fought expansion of gambling, including the Seneca Nation’s Western New York casino operations.

Pro-casino voices also cite the governor’s influence in advancing their position.

“I would agree the insertion of the VLT language has had the likely effect of blunting opposition. You have a very smart governor,” said Treanor, the would-be casino developer.

And that may mean lower-volume opposition.

“I don’t see a very large media campaign,” McGuire said of money his organization might spend opposing the referendum. He vowed, though, to push opposition with his member churches and congregants across the state.

It was also no accident that the governor cut the casino deals he did this spring with the Seneca Nation and two other Indian tribes. All three have existing casinos and had the capacity to spend millions opposing the governor’s casino plan. But by settling outstanding issues with the tribes and guaranteeing their casinos will operate exclusively in their geographic regions, the governor put the three tribes and their possible anti-casino expansion campaign money out of the equation.

The deal he cut means the first four of seven casinos would be able to locate in three upstate regions: the Southern Tier near Binghamton, the Catskills and Mid-Hudson Valley areas, and the Albany/Saratoga Springs region. There are ways around it, but downstate, including New York City, would not be eligible for full-blown casinos for at least seven years.

A who’s who of casino developers met last Wednesday in the Manhattan offices of Jeffrey R. Gural, a real estate developer who owns two upstate tracks with VLT casinos, including one near Binghamton where he wants to build a full casino with slots and table games. He did not return a call seeking comment.

The companies agreed to spend two weeks conducting statewide polls, according to people with knowledge of the meeting. When the numbers are crunched, the developers will determine whether to conduct a media campaign and, if so, where.

Most insiders believe that upstate, already home to more than a dozen Indian and racetrack casinos, will side with the referendum because residents already are accustomed to casinos. That comfort by the industry is not there now, though, for New York City voters. A robust turnout may occur because of a New York City mayoral campaign. But an ad campaign there would cost millions of dollars.

That leaves some advocates pressing for Cuomo to start personally raising the issue with New York City voters.

“It’s his baby,” State Sen. John J. Bonacic, an Orange County Republican, said of Cuomo’s casino plan.

Bonacic, chairman of the Senate Racing and Wagering Committee, hopes to get two of the casinos in his Catskills-area district, where the prospect of casinos helping the tourist industry has been discussed for two generations.

Bonacic called Cuomo’s assistance for the vote in New York City “critically important” to passage of the referendum.

“The governor has been kind of quiet. At some point, I’d like to see him step up to start lobbying for the casino referendum in New York City,” Bonacic said, noting that Cuomo can help without violating rules against spending state money on ballot issues.

“I think it’s pretty well-covered upstate. We need somebody talking in New York City,” he said of Cuomo.

The Cuomo administration would not reveal its strategy for getting the governor’s plan approved by voters.

Out-of-state money

The stakes are high in the Catskills, where Bonacic said at least six entities have expressed an interest in locating a casino. They include some proposals unveiled years ago, as well as other interest, he said, from Las Vegas and other areas, including MGM Resorts International, Boyd Gaming, Caesars Entertainment and Sands Entertainment.

A question is whether out-of-state casinos will spend money here to try to stop new competition. Some, such as Foxwoods, the Indian-owned casino in Connecticut, already have their eyes on possible New York casino sites.

But others, also in Connecticut, as well as in Atlantic City, N.J., and Pennsylvania, might be tempted to find ways to halt New York’s expansion. “I worry about it, but I have no indication that it’s happening yet,” said James D. Featherstonhaugh, a lobbyist and part-owner of a racetrack casino in Saratoga Springs.

Some observers believe that out-of-state casino firms don’t care much – for now – because the initial round of casinos in New York would be limited to upstate areas, far from their gambling halls.

Featherstonhaugh is also president of the New York Gaming Association, a group of racetrack-based casino operators. Some tracks, such as Featherstonhaugh’s facility, are lining up to try to get a full casino license if the measure passes, while others, such as three Western New York tracks, are barred from becoming full casinos because of the deal Cuomo made with the Seneca Nation.

There are several fronts developing. Cuomo and his team are working, for now, in the background. Besides the casino companies, the face of the support team will be several business groups, such as the Business Council of New York State, which will join with labor organizations representing hotel workers and others to push the measure.

On the opposition side, voter education efforts are to begin this week with the release of a report by the nonpartisan Institute for American Values, a Manhattan-based group that has promoted everything from fathers’ rights to the concept of thrift.

While some casino opponents were hoping the group could help with money, its federal tax status prevents that. Instead, the institute is planning to provide research information to opponents to help them push against the referendum, said Jody Wood, public education campaign director for the group,

“We’re helping people who are doing the grass-roots work,” she said.

First up: Convince voters that gambling is more risk than reward.

“The main concern is that it will affect the most vulnerable persons of our community, the lower-income people and seniors who are big targets for casinos,” Wood said.

One strategy by casino backers is to just stay quiet. Why raise the profile of a controversial issue?

Nonetheless, Bonacic has met with casino executives to urge them to get together to mount a serious effort to ensure that the constitutional amendment passes.

Bonacic believes that areas such as Buffalo will support the referendum because of jobs that will come to other struggling areas. “We need a game-changer here,” he said.

As they await the latest polling, casino developers are ready to spend what’s needed.

As evidence, look to West Springfield, Mass., with a population of under 30,000. Voters there last week rejected a Hard Rock plan to build a casino. Hard Rock and its backers spent $1 million on the failed campaign.

Low-budget opposition

The money for a pro-casino campaign is there “if there is evidence that money needs to be spent,” said Treanor, the hopeful Ulster County casino developer. “If we don’t have to spend the money, we’re not going to spend the money,” he said.

For now, Shafer, the head of the anti-gambling group that was founded in Buffalo in 2004, isn’t waiting for money to help turn voters his way.

“It sounds ludicrously cheap, … but if we had $1 million to spend, we’d still be trying to basically do the same thing,” he said of the group’s grass-roots efforts to reach voters via social media and newspaper letters to the editor.

“I think downstate is going to turn the tide. Many upstate communities are forced to believe the lie that casinos are going to bring economic development and lots of new jobs and so forth,” he said.

“The people downstate don’t have to accept that lie and may be more ready to look at some of the truth behind it.”

email: tprecious@buffnews.com