The budget crisis facing New York this year may lead state lawmakers to once again find creative ways of generating more money for the state's coffers to close a multi-billion dollar budget gap.
Lawmakers have discussed raising taxes on upper income earners and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is counting on federal aid to help make ends meet in the budget, expected to pass by the end of March. But alternatives to tax increases, including a legalization of mobile sports betting and retail marijuana sales, are also under consideration this year.
The money generating from these activities is expected to be a drop in the bucket for overall budget and will take time to truly ramp up to be anything meaningful in the state's big financial picture. And old hurdles to final approval may still remain.
But the pandemic-induced recession could spur lawmakers, including those hesitant in the past, to act this year.
For mobile sports wagers -- allowing people to place bets on the outcomes of games on their phone or tablet without going to a physical casino's sportsbook -- has its supporters in the legislature, including Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara. The Democratic lawmaker in an interview Monday pointed to neighboring New Jersey's approval of the measure, which he and other supporters of the measure argue has left New York at a disadvantage.
"They are set to pass $4 billion in sports betting," he said. "That's much different than what's happening here in New York."
Santabarbara's district includes Rivers Casino and Resort in Schenectady, one of four commercially run casinos in upstate New York that are allowed to operate sportsbooks. But given the COVID-19 pandemic, the casinos are operating at limited capaicty. One version of mobile sports betting would give the casinos a cut of the digital action.
"Now with the casinos limited, you can only get 25 percent at Rivers Casino, they just can't get the volume," Santabarbara said. "And this is their top revenue generator."
The COVID-19 pandemic has blown a multi-billion-dollar hole in the state budget and now lawmakers are trying to find ways of filling it so schools and local government services aren't cut next year.
"It could generate revenue for the local economy, but when you look at the big picture, we have a $6 billion shortfall," Santabarbara said. "This could help local governments, this could fund education and there's no better time to do it than right now."
Marijuana legalization, meanwhile, remains another question. Gov. Cuomo has signaled the program is likely to be approved in 2021 given the financial crunch. There are still questions over how communities affected by drug laws would benefit from the revenue created by legalizing cannabis. How would concerns of law enforcement officials, which have been echoed by suburban and upstate lawmakers, be sated in a final version of the bill?
Cuomo delivers his State of the State address on Monday.