10/04/2007 11:00PM

NYRA franchise debate unnecessary

EmailNEW YORK - For a few days last month, it seemed that the long and bloody battle for the New York Racing Association franchise was finally over. On Sept. 3, Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced his recommendation that NYRA be granted a 30-year franchise extension and released a memorandum of understanding under which NYRA would relinquish its claim to ownership of the tracks and the land beneath them.

There were plenty of details to be worked out, including the selection of a firm to run the long-delayed racino at Aqueduct, but the framework for an orderly continuation of racing appeared to be in place and the industry as a whole seemed to exhale. Even longtime critics and opponents of NYRA grudgingly admitted that the organization had improved in recent years and that none of the rival bidders had offered a superior plan. NYRA alone had emerged as being genuinely interested in racing rather than in pocketing slot-machine profits, having been the lone bidder that said from the start that it was perfectly happy to let the state or another firm run the one-armed bandit concession.

That window of resolution and era of good feelings lasted approximately 48 hours.

It takes agreement among three entities - the governor, the Democrat-controlled state Assembly and the Republican-controlled state Senate - for any legislation to pass in New York, and so far only the Assembly is on board with the governor's recommendation. The Senate and its leader, Joe Bruno, appear to be doing everything they can to delay any further progress on the issue. Meanwhile, the clock ticks on toward the end of the NYRA franchise in 12 weeks, and if the matter is not addressed by then, the resulting scenarios are all ugly.

Under current law, if the franchise is not legislatively awarded by Dec.o31, NYRA's board of trustees would be replaced by the Republican-controlled State Oversight Committee. That group was formed to monitor NYRA's expenditures during the Pataki administration amid the height of the hysteria over so-called "corruption scandals" at NYRA that amounted to some low-level tax evasion by mutuel clerks. Such a transfer of authority would lead to complete chaos, as NYRA management has no desire to work with that group and would instead continue to press its land claim.

"I wouldn't go to the $50 window that racing will be in existence Jan. 1 without an agreement here," John Sabini, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Racing, told The Saratogian newspaper Thursday.

That committee, which issues an annual report urging takeout increases and the diversion of revenues from racetracks to the politically appointed OTB corporations, did little during the long franchise process. It suddenly swung into action at Bruno's behest after the Spitzer recommendation and has been holding a baffling series of hearings around the state.

The most recent one was at the public library in Elmont, near Belmont Park, on the prospect of installing slot machines at Belmont and the possible effects on the local community, an issue that has absolutely nothing to do with awarding the racing franchise. They might as well have held hearings on horseshoeing techniques. At the next hearing, scheduled for Wednesday, the committee is calling the four franchise bidders back in, even those who have folded their tents, another seemingly backward and pointless exercise.

Perhaps Bruno and his senators think that the mere threat of a racing stoppage on Jan. 1 gives them leverage to modify the Spitzer plan in the weeks ahead. That's Politics 101, but what no one can figure out is precisely what Bruno wants - other than to disagree with and obstruct whatever Spitzer favors, regardless of the consequences. He has issued the vaguest of declarations that some of the losing bidders, including some generous campaign contributors, should somehow "be involved" going forward. Both Bruno and Spitzer have longtime friends and supporters who would like a piece of the slots action at Aqueduct and/or Belmont, and no one is going to be shocked when they're cut in, but there's no reason to delay resolving the racing end of things.

Barring a sensible next step, like legislatively approving the Spitzer plan and proceeding with construction of the Aqueduct racino, the likeliest next step is a short-term franchise extension while the political gamesmanship plays itself out. At this point, though, any delay will in itself be a threat to the fragile peace between NYRA and the state. If Bruno's arbitrary obstructionism derails the land-for-franchise swap that was the inevitable and most logical conclusion to the situation, we may really be facing the only truly disastrous outcome: a disruption of racing in New York as 2008 begins.