|By Michael Gormley, Associated Press|
ALBANY — State leaders have a "framework of an agreement" that would give the New York Racing Association a $105 million bailout as part of a 25-year franchise to run New York’s thoroughbred race tracks, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said Thursday.
In exchange for the lucrative 25-year franchise, NYRA would drop a claim that it owns the tracks at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga along with some high-priced property around them.
Bruno said the tentative agreement is expected to be final by Feb. 13, when a temporary extension of NYRA’s franchise is scheduled to end.
State Operations Director Paul Francis, speaking for Gov. Eliot Spitzer, wouldn’t confirm the elements Bruno released as part of the tentative agreement. But Francis said Bruno’s details are "generally consistent" with the closed-door talks that include NYRA officials.
"I don’t have any problem with what the senator said," Francis said. "On the substantive issues, I think we’re essentially in the same place."
NYRA spokesman John Lee said the private group remains optimistic and is preparing to hold races on the day after the temporary extension would expire.
The agreement Bruno outlined Thursday includes $105 million in state money to help NYRA out of bankruptcy court and more revenue for purses and breeders.
NYRA’s board would also be changed to provide greater oversight of the private group, which has held the franchise since 1955.
Bruno called a news conference a day after NYRA threatened to lay off workers and close Saratoga Race Course — in Bruno’s district — for this coming season if a deal wasn’t reached by next week.
"Can I tell you this is a done deal? No," Bruno told reporters. "I cannot say that."
But, "Racing will continue," he insisted.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wouldn’t confirm the specific elements that Bruno released, but didn’t deny a deal was near.
"We are actively engaged in negotiations and we are working toward resolution by next week’s deadline," said Silver spokesman Dan Weiller. "The speaker is optimistic that we will meet next week’s deadline."
According to Bruno, there is general agreement — subject to further talks — on the following elements:
— State taxpayers would bail out NYRA for a third time, this time with $75 million to pay off some of its debt and get out of federal bankruptcy court. Another $30 million in state money would be used for operating expenses this year. NYRA would still be about $200 million in debt.
Francis said the bailout would likely be borrowed and paid back with video slot machines revenue.
— A company to operate video slot machines at Aqueduct would be selected in about a month, with revenue from the machines expected to give NYRA the cash it needs to operate and pay off its debt.
— No video slot machines would be put at Belmont. But Francis said the administration will continue to push for Belmont video slot machines. The 2008-09 state budget is counting on $250 million in revenue from Belmont machines.
— Saratoga Race Course, the jewel of New York racing, wouldn’t be changed. Local zoning laws would be established to make sure development is in keeping with the historic track, which attracts hundreds of thousands of gamblers and tourists from around the world every summer.
— The new NYRA board will include six or seven appointees of the governor, including representatives of horse owners and breeders, two appointed by Bruno and two by Silver. NYRA-appointed members would still have a one-seat majority on the board.
— NYRA’s board chairman would be limited to two four-year terms.
— There will be no layoffs.
Bruno said he felt Spitzer and Silver –both Democrats — unduly "pressured" him in recent days to accept the basic elements of Spitzer’s proposal to keep NYRA running the tracks. Bruno cited NYRA’s public statements that Bruno was standing in the way of a deal, threatened Saratoga’s season that is critical for his district, and would cause layoffs of workers in NYRA and the racing industry.
"We are always hopeful," said NYRA’s Lee. "Unfortunately, lacking an agreement, we’ve had to prepare our employees as well as trainers and their employees for the reality that racing may cease on Wednesday."
"Are they creating pressure?" Bruno said, noting he’s the only leader in talks with a track in his district this legislative election year. "Absolutely, no doubt about it."
"Nobody squeezed anybody," Francis said. "The governor has three tracks in his district."