10/02/2007 12:00AM

Support grows for Belmont slot machines

EmailThe possibility that slot machines will be legalized at Belmont Park in New York has become more likely because of a confluence of political and economic considerations surrounding the franchise currently held by the New York Racing Association.

Although slot machines are explicitly prohibited under New York law at the Long Island racetrack, the legislative wrangling over how to award the franchise and to whom has emboldened slot-machine supporters to begin lobbying aggressively for the machines. Legalization is supported by the New York Racing Association, its horsemen, some community leaders near Belmont, the administration of Gov. Eliot Spitzer, and a growing number of legislators.

Support, though, is not unanimous, and any bill would have to clear several hurdles, including the leadership of the assembly, which opposes the expansion of slot-machine gambling. In addition, any bill that would legalize the machines - which are also known as video-lottery terminals, or VLTs - would also likely need to include revenue allocation for the communities surrounding the track to be politically viable.

The prospect of slot machines at Belmont was discussed by community officials on Monday night at a meeting of the state senate's Committee on Racing, Gaming, and Wagering held near Belmont at a local library. At the hearing, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi and the head of a community organization, Pat Nicolosi, said they supported slot machines at the track, while another community organization leader, Ruth Jakab, said her group would oppose slots.

Sen. Bill Larkin, the chairman of the racing and gaming committee, said in an interview on Tuesday that he would favor slot machines at Belmont Park "150 percent" if there was a consensus in the county and local townships about the issue.

"The support for VLTs was pretty obvious at the meeting, I thought," Larkin said. "They made it quite clear that they were looking for something that would improve the quality of life there."

Larkin said that any bill to legalize slots would have to include cuts for the local communities. That position is also supported by the senate majority leader, Dean Skelos, a Republican who represents Rockville Centre on Long Island.

"Senator Skelos is very concerned that the funding derived from VLTs would not stay in the local community," said Tom Dunham, a spokesman for Skelos, on Tuesday. Dunham said that a bill legalizing Belmont slot machines would go nowhere without local allocations.

Currently, two racetrack casinos, among the eight that are operating in New York, contribute slot-machine revenue to local communities: Yonkers Raceway and Saratoga Racecourse. If legislation is introduced that cuts Belmont's local community into the mix, communities surrounding every racetrack-casino are expected to press for the same treatment, which could complicate the political process, legislative officials said.

The slot-machine issue has been pushed to the forefront by the recommendation by Gov. Spitzer to award NYRA a 30-year extension of its franchise. Any deal to award the franchise would have to be approved by the legislature.

As part of the extension, the state and NYRA would select a casino operator for Aqueduct, where slot machines were legalized in 2001 but the installation of the devices has been stalled by a complex mix of political, economic, and legal issues.

As a result, many legislators and supporters of slot machines see the franchise issue as a critical opportunity to make their case, since legislation will have to be passed anyway to award the franchise.

By far the biggest hurdle is in the state assembly, where Speaker Sheldon Silver has steadfastly resisted the legalization of more gambling facilities. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Silver, Dan Weiller, said that though Silver is still opposed, the opportunity is open for supporters to make a case.

"The conference of the assembly majority would have to be convinced that it made sense," Weiller said.