When it comes to gaming the political system for tax breaks and special perks, it’s hard to beat the gaming industry. In New York State, there are different rules and tax rates for its full-blown casinos, video-gaming racinos, and Indian casinos. Such factors help complicate the casino industry’s tax-gaming game, making for increased melodrama, campaign contributions, and lobbyist income.
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Last week, the Times Union reported, in “Harness tracks, racinos, feel the heat from casinos” (by Rick Karlin, June 18, 2017), that:
Jeff Gural, majority owner of the troubled Vernon Downs harness track and video lottery game “racino” in Vernon, Oneida County, said he would have to close his doors this fall if he didn’t get a tax break. [note: Mr. Gural is a major contributor to Gov. Cuomo.]
And, today, the Schenectady Gazette published “2 harness track racinos look to state for relief“ (by John Cropley, June 19, 2017), and noted:
Two harness racing tracks that host electronic casino operations are looking to the state for help amid increased competition from the proliferation of casinos across upstate New York.
One piece of legislation would allow Saratoga Casino Hotel in Saratoga Springs to use 4 percent of its net win for capital improvements.
Another would increase the percentage of the net win retained by Vernon Downs Casino Hotel in Vernon, near Utica.. . .
Both bills have been approved by the state Senate but have been sitting in committee in the state Assembly. The 2017 legislative session is scheduled to end Wenesday.
- update (August 23, 2017): see the Gazette article “Saratoga racino gets relief as competition heats up” (by Ned Campbell, Aug. 22, 2017).
In response to this year’s crop of Gaming Groveling and Gambits, the Times Union published a Sunday editorial, “No subsidies for the casinos” (premium online content).
Citing financial problems, an upstate gaming venue seeks a tax break.
Taxpayers should not have to support cash cows that morph into albatrosses.
“Lets be clear what a tax cut means: A loss of revenue that other taxpayers have to make up. It will be what casino proponents insisted would never happen: state taxpayers subsidizing gaming halls that were supposed to be cash cows.”
The TU editorial concludes: “Certainly it’s fair to find equitable ways to spread the benefits so that hard-pressed local economies like Oneida County’s don’t suffer. What’s unfair is to ask taxpayers to continually cover venues for the bad bets they’re proving to be.”
No matter what happens in this Legislative session, I’m betting that billionaire Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming minions here at Schenectady’s Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor are already looking into ways to reduce their gaming and property taxes and gain advantages over their casino and racino competition. That is what they have always done at other casino venues, in good times and bad. Best bets for Boo-Hooing from Rush Street:
- using the failure to meet their revenue projections as the justification for seeking a reduction in the gaming tax revenue rate
- pointing to lower gaming tax revenue rates at racinos and at other casinos (under Legislative compromises meant to aid locations in less populated or poorer areas) as “unfair” competitive advantages for their competitors
- challenging property tax assessments whether or not they are having financial success
Unlike casino owners elsewhere, Rush Street has made no promise in Schenectady about putting off challenging property assessments. Here’s what the Worster Massachusetts VoteNoSlots group said a couple years ago about Rush Street and taxes:
At each of their four casinos, Rush Street Gaming has either fought to have its property assessment reduced, or threatened to reduce it:
- As soon as Rush Street opened Riverwalk Casino in Vicksburg, Mississippi, it fought to have its property assessment reduced from $78 million to $30 million.
- Almost as soon as they opened Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, they began lobbying to have their property assessment HALVED, and have continued to do it every single year.
- The city of Philadelphia also was involved in a legal dispute with Sugarhouse Casino over property tax.
- If the state (of Illinois) approves a Chicago casino or slots at horse tracks, then Bluhm wants to be able to add more slot machines and pay lower tax rates in Des Plaines. “We absolutely need both,” Bluhm said when asked whether he would accept one without the other. “We couldn’t possibly survive. The numbers won’t work. If we just lower tax rates and couldn’t expand, we would be crushed.”
As we reported here when arguing against naming the primary road into Mohawk Harbor “Rush Street,” after failing in their campaign to achieve the 60% reduction in their property tax assessment they had sought in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Rush Street sold their Riverwalk Casino, in 2012, just four years after it opened.
But, Rush Street Gaming doesn’t have to be doing poorly to try to avoid taxes. As reported in some detail just last year at BetterGov.org, in “Rivers Casino’s Jackpot: $1 Million Property Tax Break” (by Chuck Newbauer & Sandy Bergo):
The owners of the wildly successful Rivers Casino in Des Plaines have received more than $4 million in property tax cuts since opening nearly five years ago, by aggressively arguing that the property was worth tens of millions of dollars less than it cost to buy and build on.
Since 2012, Rivers has reported annual revenues of more than $400 million, after winnings, state records show. Its revenues are twice as large as any of the other nine Illinois casinos.
Despite their success, the Rivers owners claim the value of the casino and parking garage has declined, justifying tax relief. . . .
Tellingly, several successive reductions by the elected Cook County Review Board (from $104 M to $88 M each year) “is not enough” for Rivers Casino in Des Plaines: “The owners have gone to court seeking refunds of taxes paid in three previous years, arguing the assessments are still too high.” Rush Street’s primary owner Neil Bluhm is a well-known contributor and “bundler” in the Democratic Party. Although he did not donate to the Cook County’s elected Board members, his tax attorneys and appraisal firms have given substantial amounts.
The BetterGov.org article also makes a point similar to the Times Union Editors:
Whatever the case, the casino’s gain is their neighbors’ loss. Home owners and other property owners in Des Plaines and some surrounding communities have to pick up the slack to fund budgets for local schools, parks and other local government expenses to make up for the Rivers tax cuts.
Beyond property assessments, Rush Street Gaming is definitely not shy about efforts to change the rules in place when it received its casino license. For example, it has tried strenuously to fend off competition to its successful SugarHouse Casino from a second Philadelphia casino, although the State Legislature had for many years envisioned the second casino. First, it said the State Racing Commission could not re-issue the license after the first licensee failed to get necessary funding. That stalled the competition for years, before the argument was rejected by the State Supreme Court. “Pa. High Court Affirms Propriety of 2nd Philly Casino License” (Law360.ocm, by Alex Wolf). Nonetheless, SugarHouse’s lawyers have raised other issues in court, which have stalled the large South Philadelphia casino project even further. See “Whatever happened with that South Philly casino?” (Billpenn.com, by Anna Orso, Jan. 6, 2017). Expectations are that SugarHouse and the other plaintiffs will lose again, but its Rush Street owners have “won” several years of added profits by operating as the only casino in that big town.