Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Make them an offer they can't refuse

Were honesty a hallmark of state government, the division of Lottery would admit to running a strong-arm mob syndicate in Saratoga Springs large enough to make even the Gambino family jealous.

Lottery is the Legislature’s big boss to shake the last few pennies and dimes from the lower-class and fixed income populations. Much like the prototypical mob boss, Lottery isn’t altogether too concerned about how many skulls get cracked as they fill the Legislature’s coffers with so-called education funding. And now they’ve got unions on their side too.

Having successfully used a couple loopholes in the state constitution to muscle into the Spa City, Lottery now has plans to add to its burgeoning Mecca at the harness track off Nelson Avenue, regardless of how it will impact one of the state’s only successful cities. There’s not much in the way to stop them either.

When the idea for a “racino” first dawned on Saratoga, the city council wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea. Nor was the Chamber of Commerce, which saw the idea as a cash vortex that would have a similar affect on downtown businesses as legalized gambling did in Atlantic City, N.J. But after years of fruitless court battles, the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway opened it’s doors.

Since that time, no one really knows what the racino’s impact has been on the city’s businesses, much less the state’s population. The only certain thing is the cash vortex on Nelson Avenue is making the state money somehow. This is the argument Lottery officials give for the unadulterated expansion of the racino, a prospect that has some city officials and residents a bit nervous about the future.

See, the racino’s impending $16 million expansion project has been in the works for sometime now. In fact, just four short years ago, track-don Skip Carlsson was trying to railroad through a plan for a $4 million 60,000-square-foot arena. But the project was pulled, after city leaders decided the impending video lottery terminal decision coupled with expanding what was then Saratoga Equine Sports Center would produce a self-contained entertainment metropolis that could threaten the vitality of down town.

But now that the racino has Lottery’s backing, it falls under the purview of the state, not the local government, which can only sigh like a bleating wildebeest as the expansion project goes through. Not to mention, Lottery also has the muscle of UNITE HERE Local 471, otherwise known as the builder’s union or one of the more influential gangs of organized labor in construction-happy Saratoga Springs.

Adding to this power is the support of Democrat and long-time Public Works fixture Tom McTygue, one of the city’s veritable power brokers, who himself is a vocal proponent of harness racing –perhaps because he owns and breeds standard-bred horses. He’s not alone either, among powerful politicians either outwardly or tacitly supporting the racino expansion. As irony would have it, McTygue, the racino’s horseman’s union and Local 471, among many other unions, endorsed Republican Sen. Joseph “Hollywood” Bruno in his bid for 2006 confirmation –why bother using the term election.

Yes, state Lottery has amassed quite the collection of players at the harness track before even figuring in the sweetheart deals the New York Racing Association has pitched their way.

In June, NYRA agreed to allow the racino to simulcast the meet’s daily races, meaning bettors can simply waltz in an place wagers without needing to bother with the $3 admission at the flat track. Then to top the whole sordid mess off, Lottery has managed to sleaze the way onto the flat track’s top billing for the next two year’s: the annual Travers’ Day stakes, sponsored by the New York State Lottery.

Don’t worry though. Lottery still hasn’t managed to get Yolanda Vega elected into the Spa City’s mayor’s office. They’ll need to wait until 2007 to do that.

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