Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

New York

Casinos expanding nationally

I have no idea what the political or budgetary climate will be like for the gambling industry here in Texas when the Lege next convenes in 2013, but they have been gaining a lot of ground elsewhere in the country.

You got to know when to hold em...

States have embraced casinos, after years of trepidation about their societal costs, for two simple reasons: a promise of a rich new revenue source, plus the possibility of stimulating tourism.

“They are faced with tough decisions. They are in recession … And we pay taxes far over and above normal taxes,” said Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association.

Last week alone, Genting’s new gambling parlor at Aqueduct, now limited to 4,500 video slot machines and another 500 electronic table games, made nearly $13 million — putting the “racino” on pace to make $676 million per year, with 44 percent of that take going to a state education fund.

And that total is nothing compared to the $1.4 to $2 billion per year Genting predicts it would bring in at the huge complex it is planning in Miami.

Some experts, however, have questioned whether revenue bonanzas that large are realistic, and say states should be cautious about giving up too much to lure these projects. Competition for a limited pool of gambling and tourism dollars is already fierce, and recent years haven’t been kind to casinos.

Nevada’s larger casinos lost $4 billion in 2011, according to a report released this month by the state’s Gaming Control Board, as the state continued to feel the effects of the global economic slump.

As gambling options have increased in the East, revenue has slid substantially at the pair of Indian tribe-owned casinos in Connecticut and declined by a dramatic 30 percent in Atlantic City, which has lost customers in droves to the new casinos in nearby Philadelphia, according to David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Other than that one mention of Nevada, the story is entirely East Coast-focused, so I can’t say what kind of action there may be in these parts. No question, Texas is a big prize, and I’m sure there will be yet another large push for casinos, slot machines at racetracks, or both. There’s also been a push for online gambling of late, which may add a new wrinkle to the usual legislative battle. As always, worth keeping an eye on.

A step forward for online gambling

Interesting.

The Justice Department has reversed its long-held opposition to many forms of Internet gambling, removing a big legal obstacle for states that want to sanction online gambling to help fix their budget deficits.

The legal opinion, issued by the department’s office of legal counsel in September but made public on Friday, came in response to requests by New York and Illinois to clarify whether the Wire Act of 1961, which prohibits wagering over telecommunications systems that cross state or national borders, prevented those states from using the Internet to sell lottery tickets to adults within their own borders.

Although the opinion dealt specifically with lottery tickets, it opened the door for states to allow Internet poker and other forms of online betting that do not involve sports. Many states are interested in online gambling as a way to raise tax revenue.

New York has offered an online subscription service since 2005 that allows state residents to enter a string of Lotto or Mega Millions drawings.

See here for some background. I don’t really expect anything to come of this here in Texas, but I won’t be too surprised if it’s part of the legislative conversation in 2013. If nothing else, I have to figure the Texas Lottery Commission would like to add online subscriptions to its bag of tricks. Worther keeping an eye on, in any event.

Bike sharing comes to New York

You’d have thought – or at least, I’d have thought – that New York City would have been a very early adopter of bike sharing. Turns out they’re just getting started now.

At a press conference [last Wednesday] afternoon, the Department of Transportation announced that it has selected Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share, which runs similar programs in Boston and Washington D.C.

New York is kind of late to the bike-share game — European cities have been on this tip forever, and U.S. cities from Boston and D.C. to Madison, Minneapolis, and Chicago already have programs in place.

But New York will be the biggest bike-share yet. When it makes its debut next summer, New York City Bike Share will include 10,000 new bicycles at 600 locations, more than any other program in the world.

The rental stands will be placed about three blocks apart, throughout Manhattan below 79th Street and in the nearer reaches of Brooklyn.

Mindful of the recent grumblings about its ambitious bike-lane expansions, the Department of Transportation is promising to solicit lots of input before it selects locations for the rental stands.

Last week the DOT promised City Council it will consult the Council and hold public hearings as it goes forward. New Yorkers can also give their own suggestions for a bike-share location on the program’s web site.

There’s a video at the story that explains the basics. Speaking as a native Staten Islander, all I can say is that I hope they expand this beyond “Manhattan below 79th Street and in the nearer reaches of Brooklyn”. Oddly enough, the streets of Manhattan are crowded enough that I don’t know how they’ll be to an influx of presumably novice bicyclists. I also wonder if the effect will be more to reduce bus and subway ridership rather than to take cars off the street. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Also fixing to hop on board the bike sharing bandwagon – Dallas.

Absolutely, says the city’s top bicycle planner, Max Kalhammer.

The 2011 Dallas Bike Plan, approved in June by the Dallas City Council to mixed reviews, calls for just such a program, with a half-dozen bike centers located in downtown, he said. Private firms willing to operate a bike share program have already visited him, and interest is strong.

But first, he said, Dallas has to implement the first stages of the bike plan — which would add hundreds of miles of bike lanes — so that those who want to use the bikes, or use their own, can do so safely and have plenty of places to go.

“We have to really have the bicycle infrastructure in place before we can offer that program of bicycle sharing,” Kalhammer said. “One has to come before the other.”

Most importantly, the city is looking for about $500,000 in grant money to complete the Central Core Connector, a series of on-street improvements central Dallas that planners hope will make bicycling easier and safer for residents and tourists from Uptown to Deep Ellum, downtown and Oak Cliff.

[…]

How would the city’s bike share program work?

The bike plan envisions two possible scenarios. One would involve bringing in a firm, as New York has done, to manage the program in return for the right to collect fees from users. The monthly fee — pledged in NYC to be less than a monthly transit pass — would cover unlimited 24/7 access to, in New York’s case, the 10,000 bikes stationed throughout the city.

In Dallas, though, the program would start smaller, perhaps with about a half-dozen bike stations in downtown, though the plans call for expanding service to Deep Ellum and Oak Cliff over time.

The other scenario would involve the city managing the program.

Good for them. With San Antonio leading the way, and Houston and Austin to follow, our state’s on its way to being a lot more bike friendly.

Speaking of Houston, I was hoping to give an update on its Bike Share rollout, since it’s supposed to be up and running this fall. As it happens, Laura Spanjian was on vacation when the story about New York’s bike share program came out, and I have not been able to connect with her to ask for a status update. I will note that neither the Houston Bike Share Facebook page nor the Bike Share Houston webpage has been updated in recent months. When I hear something, I will let you know.

States looking at online gambling

Until the economy returns to the point where states aren’t completely strapped for revenue, I expect them to look at all possible sources of new money.

It’s an idea gaining currency around the country: virtual gambling as part of the antidote to local budget woes. The District of Columbia is the first to legalize it, while Iowa is studying it, and bills are pending in places like California and Massachusetts.

But the states may run into trouble with the Justice Department, which has been cracking down on all forms of Internet gambling. And their efforts have given rise to critics who say legalized online gambling will promote addictive wagering and lead to personal debt troubles.

The states say they will put safeguards in place to deal with the potential social ills. And they say they need the money from online play, which will supplement the taxes they already receive from gambling at horse tracks, poker houses and brick-and-mortar casinos.

“States had looked at this haphazardly and not very energetically until the Great Recession hit, but now they’re desperate for money,” said I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School, where he specializes in gambling issues.

When it comes to taxing gambling, he said, “the thing they have left is the Internet.”

I don’t really expect this to come up in the Texas Lege in 2013, because casino and horse racing interests have too much at stake to let it happen. While I am not an advocate of expanded gambling myself, if it ever does happen in Texas I would prefer it to be in the form of real casinos and/or slot machines at racetracks, on the grounds that they would provide more jobs than online gambling. Having said that, once this is up and running somewhere, it’s not really clear to me how you could prevent someone in Texas, or anywhere else, from playing.

There are other ways that a state could leverage the Internet to feed its own gambling habit:

Some states, including New York and North Dakota, already sell lottery subscriptions online. Since 2005, New York has offered a subscription service that allows people in the state to enter a string of Lotto or Mega Millions drawings. The state says 100,000 people subscribe.

New York is exploring whether to allow people to draw from an escrow account when they decide to buy into a single drawing — say, when the jackpot reaches alluring levels.

Again, I can’t recall hearing of anything like this in Texas. Unlike the virtual casinos, I could imagine something like this being implemented by the Texas Lottery Commission, without direct input from the Lege. I wonder if they haven’t thought of it, or if they think it’s illegal for them to try it. Anyone know anything about that?

Hey, Houston! Steal this idea!

Something like this needs to happen here in Houston.

The BigApps competition, in which [New York City] made its data available to developers so they could make apps out of them that would be helpful to citizens, and offered prizes to the best entries, closed last night with a ceremony and the announcement of three grand prize winners, a popular favorite chosen by the public, and six honorable mentions. Some of them are available already on iTunes, and we expect the others will be soon.

The key to all this was New York making its data available so the apps creators could do their thing. I feel confident that if Houston did the same, and made sure that fact was known, our own app development community would jump on it. Even without a contest and a cash prize – though of course those things couldn’t hurt – we’d likely see some cool and useful stuff. But it all starts with making the data available, and making sure people know that it’s available.

If we’re looking for revenue to help deal with that budget gap…

We could always follow the lead of many other states and adopt our own climate plan.

Already, ten states in the Northeast have put their electric utilities under a cap-and-trade system known as RGGI. Eleven Western states and Canadian provinces are now laying the groundwork for their own cap-and-trade system, known as the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), which would begin in 2012 and could well expand further. Right now, there’s a lot of cooperation between RGGI and WCI, [Terry Tamminen, who advised California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on that state’s climate policy] said—so that in the future they could be linked up, possibly with Europe’s system, and possible with offset projects in, say, China and India. (Relatedly, Schwarzenegger is putting together an “R-20” for various subnational governments, modeled after the G-20, to get together and coordinate these sorts of regional efforts.)

Okay, but what sorts of cuts are we really talking about? The WCI, after all, includes some hefty states and provinces—California, Ontario, Washington, Arizona—but it doesn’t include some of the heaviest polluters, like Alberta and Texas. Unfortunately, no one’s done a full tally of the total impact on U.S. emissions—it’s still too early for that. But, Tamminen notes, when you add state efforts to the hundreds of cities that have pledged to reduce their emissions, suddenly we’re talking about a big swath of the United States. “Eighty percent of the country’s emissions come from cities and industrial areas that are often located near those cities.”

And, Tamminen adds, other states will have plenty of incentive to buy into these climate plans. For instance, some of the RGGI states have used revenue from selling carbon permits to help fill in their budget shortfalls ($100 million in New York’s case)—an option that may increasingly look attractive to many governors around the country. It’s a move that has a certain logic too it. “When you think about a coal-fired power plant,” says Tamminen, “it’s not just the greenhouse gases—there are all sorts of other pollutants causing asthma and so forth, and that ends up costing states in medical bills. So it’s totally appropriate for states to offset those costs by forcing polluters to internalize them, through a price on carbon.”

A hundred million bucks is still a relatively small amount in the context of our budget and its currently projected shortfall, but it’s still a hundred million bucks, and I’d bet Texas has a lot more revenue potential there than New York does. Yeah, I know, this is about as likely to happen as a tax on concealed weapons. But just take a minute and imagine what it might be like if we provided incentives to not pollute, instead of the other way around.

Uncle Dan wins re-election

For some more pleasant election-related news, I’m happy to note that my uncle Dan Kuffner was re-elected to the Dutchess County (New York) Legislature.

In District 7, Legislator Dan Kuffner, D-Hyde Park, beat Republican Yancy McArthur.

[…]

On Nov. 3, Kuffner led by only 44 votes. After 118 paper ballots were counted Friday, Kuffner had 1,325 votes and McArthur had 1,283, a difference of 42 votes, according to unofficial results.

Kuffner, 62, said, “I got into this job because I enjoy service. I’m thrilled that the people are asking me to continue the job.”

He was elected in 2007 after a long career as an elementary school teacher; he had also been the president of the local teachers’ union. This was a bad year in Dutchess County for his fellow Democrats, as they went from a 13-12 majority to being down 18-6, plus an independent. But he won after a tough campaign. Congats again, Uncle Dan!

Friday random ten: It’s a helluva town

I don’t really have anything new or original to say about this anniversary of 9/11. What I published back in 2002 is as meaningful as anything I could say today. What I can do is give you some music in honor of my hometown, which is always in my thoughts no matter how long it’s been since I lived there.

1. Autumn In New York – Harry Connick, Jr
2. Fairytale of New York – The Priestess and The Fool
3. A Heart In New York – Art Garfunkel
4. My Love Is In New York – Black 47
5. New York City Serenade – Bruce Springsteen
6. New York State of Mind – Billy Joel
7. New York State of Mind – Mel Torme
8. Road to New York – Jim Malcolm
9. New York, New York – Frank Sinatra
10. New York, New York – from “On the Town”

Here’s to you, New York.

Good times and bad for museums

Nice to hear that a couple of local museums are thriving in these hard times. Sadly, they’re very much the exception.

On the heels of the March 14 opening of a seven-gallery addition to its Hermann Park-area building, the [Children’s Museum of Houston] this week announced plans to add 25 positions to its 177-member workforce.

The $35 million expansion almost doubles the museum’s size to 90,000 square feet. Plans call for boosting programs targeting low-income or bilingual families.

Meanwhile, the [Houston Museum of Natural Science], which this year marks its centennial, is moving forward with a campaign to raise $85 million for construction of a 194,000-square-foot addition that will help it cope with millions of visitors who pour through its doors annually.

Museum President Joel Bartsch said $61 million has been raised and a summer groundbreaking is scheduled.

“We’re fairly fortunate in that we have a lot of rocks and seashells — and a town full of geologists and universities,” said Bartsch, who noted attendance, membership and revenues all have increased over the past year.

I’ve heard many good things about the Children’s Museum expansion, which we plan to experience soon for ourselves. The HMNS expansion sounds exciting, too – Olivia has been a big fan of dinosaurs for awhile now, so I’m sure she’ll love this. The BeyondBONES blog has been giving regular updates on their centennial celebration.

Unfortunately, as noted, for most museums it’s been the opposite experience.

“Overall, the state of non-profits right now is very, very difficult,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. “They are laying off staff. We hear a lot of stories about capital campaigns postponed. Nationally, museum attendance is up … unfortunately, admissions don’t pay the bills.”

As foundations and private donors see the value of their portfolios dwindle, he said, donations drop. Profitable museum memberships, Bell said, also are declining.

Earlier this month, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would lay off one-fourth of its merchandising staff and cut its total workforce by 10 percent by summer.

The New York Times reported the museum, whose endowment lost $800 million, or 28 percent of its value, since last summer, has halted hiring and curtailed merit raises and staff travel.

Museums in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis and Los Angeles also have cut staff, the newspaper reported.

The Museum of Fine Arts-Houston has cut workers’ salaries up to 4 percent, and the Contemporary Art Museum imposed a hiring freeze and reduced its budget by 10 percent. By the end of last year, said MFA spokeswoman Mary Haus, the value of the art museum’s endowment had dropped 28 percent. CAM spokeswoman Connie McAllister said the museum fell short of its fall fundraising goal.

That’s really sad. I just hope things turn around soon for them.

Houston Have Your Say 2.0

So last year I got to serve as an on-the-spot blogger for KUHF’s production of Houston Have Your Say, which was about immigration. I blogged some of it at Kuff’s World and some of it at a blog that was set up for the show. Tonight I’ll be back in the KUHF studios along with my compatriot from the last time, Ree-C Murphy of Lone Star Times and Chronically Right, and the topic will be growth. There’s a new blog for the occasion, which you can find here – expect to see our output there this evening.

That blog already has a few entries on it, from some of the guests who will be on the program to discuss the issues. One such entry is here, from Tory Gattis of Houston Strategies. In the spirit of kicking things off, I’m going to pick a nit about his case for why we shouldn’t fear growth, a thesis with which I otherwise concur.

Houston has a pedestrian-hostile tropical climate five months of the year. While northern transit-based cities benefit from a personal warming technology – the coat – the only personal cooling technology that exists for southern cities is an air-conditioned vehicle.

All due respect, but as someone who grew up in a northern transit-based city and spent ten years of his life walking or taking public transit to get to school, it’s cities like New York that are pedestrian-hostile for five months of the year; essentially, November through March. It’s true one can wear that magical personal warming technology Tory refers to when it’s cold, but up north we also have what’s known as “snow”, which turns into “slush”, and trust me on this – your coat only helps so much in those conditions. I’ve seen snow as early as Halloween and as late as Easter – in fact, the last snow day I recall as a student was on Good Friday, in the first week of April. Some day, when I tell my daughters that I often went to school in a foot or more of snow, I won’t be exaggerating. (The bit about it being uphill both ways will admittedly be a stretch.) You want weather that’s not fit for walking, or for waiting for a bus? Let me introduce you to the concept of the “wind chill factor”. That’s my idea of an I’d-rather-be-driving climate.

As for Houston, well, I may be more heat tolerant than some, but for the most part outside of July and August, I’ll take our weather over theirs. And you know, in a well-designed transit-oriented city, they do have a remarkable pedestrian-cooling technology available. It’s called “trees”, which when planted along sidewalks can make a big difference in the ambient temperature. You may recall a big argument over the redevelopment on Kirby Drive regarding the dispensation of its trees. And though it may not provide as much relief, unlike your car’s technology, a tree canopy won’t break down on you and require a costly repair.

Anyway. Like I say, Tory has some really smart ideas, but to me at least, the suggestion that Houston has worse walking weather than New York or Boston or Detroit is frankly ludicrous and in need of some pushback. For more on being a pedestrian in Houston, I’ll refer you back to Andrew Burleson’s recent post about walking as well as this earlier one about urban corridors and the need to value sidewalks and walking as much as we do cars and driving. May we have a lively and informative debate on all these topics tonight.