New York Again Seeks a Handle Up

One aspect of New York City’s clean-up in the 1990s was the closing of many dingy Off-Track Betting parlors. Some tidier operations lived on for a few years but ultimately Gotham said good riddance to the public gambling-on-horses corporation.

The OTB experiment in the city had begun with apparent popular support in 1970 as a way to cover budget deficits. The idea soon spread to Long Island and upstate, where forms of off-site pony punting continue today even as horse racing itself sputters.

But now, with all of New York in the fiscal soup again, betting on a range of sports seems in the offing, and there’s a push for a casino in or near Manhattan.  New York state voters in 2013 approved allowing an initial four full betting licenses upstate, to be followed seven years later (that would be after 2022) by up to three in the New York City area. As it happens, three horse tracks in the New York City area also are hubs for video-slots “racinos”, and one or more may be upgraded as part of this expansion.

(The sport of kings itself may have lost luster, but part of New York’s apparatus for horse wagering lives on in local quests for a take. Suffolk [County] OTB, one of five regional remnants of the 1970s public betting push, is looking to expand again, bringing slots to a former multiplex theater complex it bought seven years ago, a few miles down the Long Island Expressway from where a partner opened one in 2017.)

Sports betting generally has taken off, with app-based outfits such as Fan Duel and DraftKings widely advertising the possibilities and the professional leagues warming to associations they once eschewed. New Jersey jumped on the ball in 2018 by legalizing through its Atlantic City and racetrack casino licenses and has collected 13% tax rate on $400 million last year (even with sports interrupted by Covid-19) .  This revenue pressure proved too much for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who in January signaled he wants to follow suit.  A Democrat-dominated legislature can be expected to do so soon.

Although sports puts more vigorish into the equation, gambling has been a disappointing payday for the state going back to the OTB days. Skeptics abound across the political spectrum, but any found money is an easier sell these days. It won’t be much, as E.J. McMahon of the fiscal-watchdog Empire Center notes—new gambling and legal marijuana sales (another Cuomo push) aren’t likely to generate as much as New York doles out in film-making credits.

Nonetheless, the opportunities to be parted with pocket money (or more) soon may once again be ubiquitous. It won’t be catastrophic except for the worst of “problem gamblers” that are a contemporary social worry. The OTBs probably didn’t drag down much beyond the properties on the immediate blocks. The casinos that have sprung up since are also mainly of localized concern. (Indian tribes in New York operate casinos separately from these, though with state oversight.)  Of course, the New York State lottery has soaked the wagering class all along–$2.5 billion worth in the latest year.

Amid the high-minded rhetoric of Gov. Cuomo’s calls for rejuvenating his state’s economy, however, this part of the plan seems rather retrograde.  That won’t stop it, I recognize, and the marketing will package the bet as something of civic virtue, so long as we can tax the vice. Excelsior indeed!

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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