ALBANY, N.Y. -- Language in the final version of the New York state budget agreement makes major changes to the oft-maligned Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation.
The so-called "Big Ugly" bill includes a section changing the voting structure of the Western Regional OTB's board of directors. It gives more power, among the 17 municipalities that govern and share the public beneift corporation's profits, to the largest counties — Erie and Monroe — and two cities — Buffalo and Rochester.
While there will remain 17 members, the new voting breakdown, angibly a weighted percentage, looks like this:
- Erie County: 24
- Monroe County: 20
- City of Buffalo: 10
- City of Rochester and Niagara: 8
- Chautauqua: 5
- Oswego: 4
- Steuben, Wayne, Cattaraugus, Cayuga: 3
- Livingston and Genesee: 2
- Wyoming, Orleans, Seneca, Schuyler: 1
The legislation, effective immediately, would also unseat all of the current board members. County executives and mayors would be responsible for making new appointments for their respective municipalities.
For counties without an executive, it would be left up to their boards of supervisors. Once seated, the new board would elect a chairperson who would receive an additional vote.
Under the language, the appointees' term would be four years, subject to removal only for good cause.
The OTB has been the subject of some state audits and federal inquiries amid accusations of misuse of public funds and impropriety, all of which the corporation has adamantly denied. Democratic state Sen. Tim Kennedy, of Buffalo, has been pushing forward legislation he said should increase accountability and transparency.
Debate over the change on the Senate floor was heated
"I know my colleague doesn't like to hear this answer. there's a reason why we're addressing the western region OTB specifically and that is because of the littany of ethical instances I am citing in this paperwork here today," Kennedy said.
Republican state Sen. George Borrello, of Sunset Bay, pushed back.
"The bottom line is this does not clean up the corruption. What this does is create new corruption by empowering Erie County, the city of Buffalo, Monroe County and the city of Rochester to have controlling power. What you're ignoring is the will of the people, the people that actually do the hard work to generate that revenue," he said.
Republicans, who would lose significant influence under this structure, have been pushing back against this plan since it re-entered negotiations last week. State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said the proposed changes will have dire consequences not only for employees, a majority of which come from small rural towns and villages, but the residents of these communities where facilities are located. He painted it as a power grab and an attempt to silence rural voices.
Meanwhile, current OTB board chairman Richard Biachi said in a statement OTB was disappointed by the language, said it was negotiated in secret with no open discussion and noted revenues distributed to municipalities were at a record high in 2022.