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Retirees of defunct OTB await bill on state takeover of health plan


With just another day to go in which he can sign or veto the measure, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is getting calls from state and local unions about a bill to retain, at state expense, health insurance coverage for retirees from the now-defunct New York City OTB.

In addition to the union Local of District Council 37, officials from their parent union, AFSCME, as well as the AFL-CIO, are urging Cuomo to sign the measure.

While the bill on its face would affect about 1,000 people, it could have wider influence. That's because the GOP-controlled Senate is hoping this will pass so they can continue to patch things up with OTB's union, D.C. 37, whose officials are still upset the upper house didn't pass a plan to bring the NYC OTB out of bankruptcy.

With another large OTB operation in Suffolk County talking last year about bankruptcy, and faint rumblings of other government entities nationwide going bankrupt, there is growing concern by public workers about what could happen to benefits such as health coverage if employers go under.

As of Wednesday, it remained unclear if the governor was leaning toward signing the bill or a veto.

The immediate question focuses on retirees from the shuttered betting operation who have been without health coverage since it halted operations last December.

"It's one local but it's about 800 of our members," said Wanda Williams, political director for District Council 37, New York City's largest municipal union, with 125,000 members and 50,000 retirees.

Any union that large carries a lot of political clout and Senate Republicans in December drew criticism when OTB shut down.

Even though there weren't enough Democrats who showed up during the special session to pass a plan to bring NYC OTB out of bankruptcy, all but two Republicans opposed the plan.

"The Republican leadership are the ones who are responsible for us being in this situation," Williams said.

Republicans disagree, with Senate spokesman Scott Reif saying "we were not involved in the discussion on the 2010 restructuring bill. We were in the minority. The Democrats were in charge."

NYC OTB isn't the only state-sanctioned horse betting operation on shaky financial ground.

The Suffolk Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., based on Long Island, raised the possibility of bankruptcy last year, although lawmakers said they wouldn't approve it, said Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, D-Mt. Vernon, who chairs the Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee.

Pretlow and Senate Republican Andrew Lanza of Staten Island helped develop the bill to extend health insurance.

As NYC OTB was collapsing last year, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli issued a report warning the finances of all five regional OTBs in the state have "substantially deteriorated" over the past five years.

Still, Pretlow said he doesn't see other OTBs going bankrupt. "This was a special situation. I don't foresee this happening anywhere else," he said, explaining the state took over NYC OTB from New York City when the betting operation ran into financial trouble.

Lawmakers in both houses may have missed a chance to salvage at least some of NYC OTB's $750 million market last spring when they failed to act on a proposal to have the upstate-suburban Catskill OTB take over the New York City operation.

"We ran out of time," said Leonard Allen, president of the local that represented NYC OTB workers.

Much of the betting business has since been scooped up by bookmakers, he added.

Reach Karlin at 454-5758 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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