ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey voters Tuesday emphatically rejected expanding casino gambling beyond Atlantic City, giving the economically battered seaside resort a brief respite from a long losing streak.
Ballot question 1, which asked whether to authorize the construction of two new casinos in separate counties in the northern part of the state near New York City, was soundly defeated.
The result was a welcome reprieve for Atlantic City, where some gambling and business executives feared new in-state competition could have led to the closure of three to five of the city's remaining seven casinos.
"We are grateful to the voters of New Jersey, who by soundly defeating this constitutional amendment, spoke loudly and clearly that gaming belongs in Atlantic City, period," said Debra DiLorenzo, chairwoman of the No North Jersey Casinos Coalition, which included casino and southern New Jersey business interests. "The coalition will remain active over the next election cycle to continue the dialogue on why the expansion of gaming to North Jersey is a bad idea for our state."
The question cannot be put back before voters for at least two years, but some legislators are already considering a legally questionable plan to add slot machines to racetracks at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford and Monmouth Park in Oceanport as soon as next year by classifying them as "video lottery terminals" and presenting them as a product of the already-legal state lottery.
The ballot question didn't specify where the casinos would be built, but proposals had been floated for the Meadowlands, Jersey City and Newark. Jeff Gural, who operates the Meadowlands track, has partnered with Hard Rock International for a casino there.
"I'm disappointed but not surprised," said Gural, who stopped spending money in support of the ballot question in September when it became clear it would not pass. "The opposition very cleverly tied this issue to the state government in Trenton when everyone is expressing disgust with politics. That made it virtually impossible for us to win."
Supporters said the new casinos would recapture gambling dollars currently being lost to neighboring states, but opponents say the expansion would kill an already-teetering Atlantic City, where five of the 12 casinos have shut down in a little over two years.
Opponents, including the Malaysian owners of Resorts World casino in New York City, spent $14.8 million on ads tying the referendum to the unpopular state government in Trenton. Proponents spent $8.5 million touting the expansion.
The ballot question also left voters in the dark on several key points. In addition to not specifying exactly where the casinos would be built, it did not say what rate they would be taxed at, and perhaps most crucially, how the resulting tax money would be divvied up among Atlantic City, the horse racing industry, host towns and counties and programs for senior citizens and the disabled.
The state Legislature said its intent was for some of the tax money to help Atlantic City reinvent itself as a resort less dependent on gambling, but refused to decide those crucial details before the question went to voters.
Gural said he is prepared to wait up to six years for a new referendum to go before New Jersey voters. He and several state legislators have said a more feasible option would be to ask voters to authorize a single new casino at the Meadowlands and say upfront what tax rate it would pay and where the money would go.
"If I can get that on the ballot it would win easily," Gural predicted.
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