N.J. Assembly Dems push competing plan for north Jersey casinos

NJ.com- Democratic leaders of the state Assembly on Monday announced their own resolution seeking to put a question on next year's ballot asking New Jersey voters whether to amend the state constitution to allow casinos in the northern part of the state.

But their plan differs in two key ways from a similar resolution announced by Democratic leaders of the state Senate on Friday: It would allocate less tax money to financially struggling Atlantic City and allow companies that don't already own an Atlantic City casino to vie for one of two new proposed north Jersey gambling halls.

The dueling proposals means leaders in both houses of the state Legislature still need to hammer out an agreement if the issue is to make it to the ballot next November. Both the Senate and Assembly need to approve the same plan for it to be posed to voters.

On Friday, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) introduced a resolution that would ask voters to approve casinos in two separate counties and at least 75 miles from Atlantic City.

Under the Senate plan, nearly half of all tax revenue generated from the casinos for 15 years would go to Atlantic City, which has seen four casinos close and thousands of jobs lost over the last two years. 

The proposal announced by Assembly Democrats on Monday would dedicate 63 percent of state tax revenue from the casinos over the first 15 years to two places:

• Half for programs for seniors and disabled persons — something Atlantic City casino tax revenue currently goes toward.

• Half toward state aid to each county and municipality in New Jersey for programs and property tax relief for senior citizens and disabled residents.

After that, 35 percent of all tax revenue over the first 15 years would help aid Atlantic City in its recovery. And the rest would go to New Jersey's struggling horse racing industry.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), chairman of the house's gaming committee, said members of his chamber "see things a little differently" than the Senate. 

"We've got to present something that the public is going to accept," he said. "We know Atlantic City has to be assisted. But I think 49 percent was quite high."

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) said Monday his house's resolution "does the right thing for both Atlantic City and our senior and disabled residents."

"This is something everyone can support," Prieto said.

A spokesman for Senate Democrats did not immediately return a message seeking comment. 

Regardless of which version is favored, many south Jersey lawmakers are opposed to the idea of expanding casinos to the north in general. They argue it will hurt Atlantic City.

"I'm very worried. Most in the region are very worried," said state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), a former Atlantic City mayor. "My thinking all along is: There is an inevitability to this being on the ballot. The question is: Can we defeat it at the ballot box?"

Whelan said the "good news" is that there's "a wide gap between Senate and Assembly bill. 

"Hopefully we won't have a question at all," he said.

The Senate's resolution would require both new north Jersey casinos to be operated by a company that already owns a gambling hall in Atlantic City.

But under the Assembly's proposal, one of the two new casinos could be operated by an outside company.

That would pave the way for one of two proposed north Jersey casinos that would be disqualified under the Senate measure. One is a plan by Hard Rock International and the Meadowlands Racetrack open up a gambling hall in the East Rutherford sports complex. The other is a proposal by footwear mogul Paul Fireman to build a casino in Jersey City.

Some are hoping for a unified plan by the end of the current legislative year Jan. 11. After that, proponents of north Jersey casinos would need 10 more votes in the new year to get the question on the ballot in 2016. 

But whether lawmakers can meet the deadline is unclear. 

"I hope so. I really do," Caputo said. "This is about saving New Jersey and the gaming business. Are we going to stay in in or not?"

Atlantic City's casino industry has seen its revenue fall in the last two years from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $3 billion in 2014. 

After the Legislature legalized casino gambling there, the resort became the East Coast's premier betting destination. But over the last few decades, it has been hurt by increasing competition from neighboring states. 

Next year would be the first New Jersey would be allowed to expand casino gambling. A five-year moratorium on such expansion ends in 2016.

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