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Senate panel approves updated North Jersey casino bill

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to advance the latest bill seeking a voter referendum on the expansion of casino gaming beyond Atlantic City.The legislation is the result of a deal brokered earlier this week by Gov. Chris Christie between Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus), who each had previously sponsored competing bills.

The bill advanced Thursday is nearly identical to Sweeney’s previous measure, with the addition of a guaranteed $1 billion capital investment for each project, ensuring that any new casino will be constructed as a resort-style destination rather than so-called “slots in a box.”

Sweeney and state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) are co-sponsors on the latest bill.

“This will give New Jersey the opportunity to expand the state’s gaming market in ways that will benefit the entire state,” Sweeney said. “It will provide substantial investments that will create jobs and fuel economic opportunity in North Jersey, generate resources to aid senior citizens and the disabled and raise funds to support the revitalization of the Atlantic City region.”

A three-fifths legislative majority will be required by August in order to place the question on this November’s ballot.

“We must recapture the finite amount of gaming that is currently leaving the state and make our casino industry competitive,” Sarlo said. “It’s not only about regaining the gaming industry in New Jersey, it is also about the $4 billion in new investment in North Jersey and the $3 billion for Atlantic City that will go to private sector construction and economic growth over the next 15 years.”

Other features of the bill include:

  • Two new gaming permits will be granted. Both will go to planned casinos at least 72 miles from Atlantic City, though it was widely understood that both will go to counties in northern New Jersey;
  • The permits must go to two different counties (Hudson, Bergen and Essex all have expressed interest);
  • Only those currently holding a license to operate in New Jersey will be eligible to apply for one of the new permits (they must be majority owners of the new casinos);
  • Prospective permit holders will have to commit to a mandatory $1 billion minimum capital investment;
  • During the first 15 years of operation, 49 percent of the public revenue generated by the two new casinos would be pumped back into Atlantic City to assist the city in its economic recovery.

Lawmakers from the Atlantic City area have criticized plans calling for the city to lose its intrastate monopoly on casino gaming.

“This might be a new plan to expand casino gaming, but it still stinks,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Northfield). “No one has been able to explain to me how successful North Jersey casinos will be when, not if, New York City gets gaming. When that happens, casinos in both Atlantic City and North Jersey would close, further exacerbating Atlantic City’s and New Jersey’s sluggish economy.”

“Today’s understudied and underwhelming proposal to expand casino gaming to North Jersey is no different than the previous ones offered — it puts thousands of Atlantic County middle-class residents out of work,” added Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield). “Don’t just take my word for it, yesterday Moody’s Investors Service warned that ‘…the additional competition will likely cause more casinos to close, which would be credit negative for Atlantic City.’”

The bill now awaits full Senate consideration.

Andrew George