Democrats closing in on North Jersey casino agreement

PoliticoNewJersey- After a weekend of negotiations, Democrats who control the state Senate and Assembly are close to forging a deal that could pave the way for North Jersey casinos — if voters approve.

“Talks are moving in the right direction,” Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat from Bergen County, said on Monday. Sarlo added that he will be a prime sponsor of the compromise amendment. “I am confident that we will be bringing this to the Legislature, perhaps in lame duck.”

Sarlo and other Democrats involved in the talks would not give details. But they began the weekend far apart on several key questions, and have tentatively resolved one of the biggest: How many casinos will be permitted in North Jersey.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and many North Jersey lawmakers, including Assemblyman Ralph Caputo of Essex County, have called for three. Senate President Stephen Sweeney wanted no more than two.

According to three sources with knowledge of the negotiations but who refused to speak publicly about them, both sides have settled on two North Jersey casinos, with with specific locations to be determined later — although developers already have announced plans for casinos in Jersey City and the Meadowlands.

With four casinos having closed in Atlantic City in 2014, many lawmakers see North Jersey casinos as a way to capture gaming revenue that’s being lost to neighboring states while providing a new revenue source to the struggling resort town. Casino gaming is permitted only in Atlantic City, and it would take a voter-approved constitutional amendment to allow it anywhere else.

To get it before voters in 2016, both the state Senate and Assembly must either approve it with a single vote with a three-fifths majority, or with two simple majority votes in consecutive legislative years. Gov. Chris Christie, who has expressed support for North Jersey casinos, does not have a role in the process.

Differences remain over exactly how much money the North Jersey casinos would give to Atlantic City. Sweeney had proposed $200 million, which some North Jersey lawmakers felt was unacceptable. Also unsettled are questions about whether only casino operators licensed in Atlantic City would be allowed licenses to open casinos in North Jersey.

Tom Hester Jr., a spokesman for Prieto, said the Hudson County Democrat “continues to believe North Jersey gaming is a matter of when, not if, but he will not be commenting on ongoing discussions.”

Sweeney, a Democrat from Gloucester County, also declined to comment.

“There’s discussions, but I’m not going to say anything else,” he said. “Except that we’re talking to the Assembly.”

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