The Concord in Kiamesha Lake,
the largest of the Catskills hotels
at the time, was in the forefront of
a push to get casino legislation passed
in the 1970s. One draft of the legislation
limited casinos to existing resorts with at
least 500 rooms, which would have qualified
the Concord, Grossinger's, and Kutsher's in
addition to the Nevele in Ulster County.
by John Conway
November 15, 2013
THE MANY LIVES OF CASINO GAMING LEGISLATION IN NEW YORK
Since the late 19th Century, rarely a decade has passed without some form of gambling legislation being debated in Albany. From outlawing betting at racetracks to legalizing lotteries to several attempts to allow casinos in one form or another, it seems as if the gambling issue has never been far from the forefront in the state capitol.
Still, despite a number of extremely close calls, this year marked the first time the question of allowing casinos in the state has ever come before the voters.
And it hasn’t been because New Yorkers don’t like to gamble. In their 1990 book, “The Last Resort: Success and Failure in Campaigns for Casinos,” authors John Dombrink and William N. Thompson cite a 1976 federal report that ranked the state number one in gambling experience.
“New York has also led the way in legalizing many forms of gambling,” the pair wrote. “In 1971 it became the first state outside Nevada to permit off-track betting on horse races. By 1976, its fifth year of operation, [OTB] gross revenues were over $100 million. On the illegal side, estimates of government agencies on the amount of illegal betting in New York City alone range from $800 million to $1 billion annually.”
Many folks today clearly remember the strong push from several sectors in the early 1970s to convince state legislators to authorize “plush gambling casinos” in Times Square as a means of revitalizing a stagnant New York City economy. Despite active lobbying, mostly by a group calling itself the Broadway Association, the effort never gained much traction.
“The proposal of Times Square merchants to revive their area with legal gambling casinos received a decidedly negative reaction among legislative leaders today, some of whom voiced the opinion that it would amount to substituting Sodom for Gomorrah,” the New York Times announced in an April 12, 1974 article under the headline “Times Square Casinos Called a Bad Bet.”
After what could at best be considered a tepid reception, the matter of possible Times Square casinos quietly faded from the Albany scene. Still, between 1972 and 1981 there were no fewer than four attempts in Albany to legalize casinos, each one defeated by some combination of religious opposition, political deal making, inept lobbying and the prospect of a return to the lawlessness of the 1930s.
One of the strongest pushes came in 1978, when a concerted effort was made by both houses of the State Legislature to legalize casinos in several regions of the state, including the Catskills, Niagara Falls and the Rockaways, but not Manhattan. This effort, too ultimately failed, but not before spurring the hopes of Sullivan County hotelkeepers, some of whom went so far as to invest in new land and facilities to accommodate what they were sure would be a major new boost to their struggling businesses.
This particular effort to land casinos in the Catskills got a strong boost in November of 1978, when retired New York State Trooper Raymond Kisor of Goshen was elected to the Assembly. Kisor was a strong proponent of legalizing gaming via an amendment to the state Constitution, had campaigned on it, and almost immediately began to push the issue once elected. Kisor appointed a citizens commission to consider the various proposals for legalizing casinos and spoke often about the economic benefits they would bring.
The State Senate, meanwhile, announced the formation of a special committee to study the issue. And while Kisor’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Assembly seemed to favor legalization, the same could not be said for the Senate, where the passage of any enabling legislation likely faced a tougher road, due in part to the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Warren Anderson of Binghamton.
The Senate committee was chaired by Senator James H. Donovan of Chadwicks, and also included Jess Present of Jamestown, John Marchi of Staten Island, Ralph Marino of Oyster Bay, Linda Winikow of Spring Valley, Howard Nolan of Loudonville, Richard Schermerhorn of Newburgh, John Daly, Mary Goodhue, and Abraham Bernstein, all of New York City, and Jeremy Weinstein. Schermerhorn was an avowed opponent of casinos, as were several other members of the committee. Curiously, Charles Cook, who represented a large chunk of the Catskills, including Sullivan County, was not on the Committee.
“Sullivan County, as one of the state’s prime resort areas, and the one closest to New York City, would benefit most from the availability of casino gambling and the crowds it would attract, proponents say. Others warn that it would attract a gangster element,” the Newburgh Evening News reported on March 26, 1979, just a few days after the Senate committee was announced.
The legislation to amend the State Constitution to allow strictly controlled gaming in the Catskills and elsewhere passed both the Assembly and the Senate in 1979, and then passed the Assembly the following year. With strong opposition from Anderson and only lukewarm support from Governor Hugh Carey, the matter never came up for a vote the second time in the Senate.
“Efforts to get a constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling appeared dead for this session,” the New York Times reported on June 10, 1980. “The Chairman of the Senate Task Force on Casino Gambling, James H. Donovan, said the Senate would pass his version of the amendment or no other.”
Heavy lobbying by desperate Catskill hotel owners and other supporters of the measure failed to get the issue even close to a vote the following year and the matter again died a quiet death.
That is, until the late 1990s, when a bill was once again brought forth, and once again seemed destined to pass, at least at the outset. In fact, the legalization of casinos in New York seemed so likely at one point that it created a strange coalition of opponents who spent millions of dollars to ensure that the issue would never come to a vote.
More on that next week.
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Visit his website at www.sullivanretrospect.com and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .