Trounced at polls, north Jersey casino bills still lurking

Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J. ( Courtesy of Ocean Casino Resort )

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey voters seemingly drove a stake through the heart of proposals to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City to the suburbs near New York City when nearly 80% of those who cast ballots rejected a referendum four years ago.

And yet, the idea has never totally gone away.

In mid-January, some state lawmakers quietly reintroduced bills from the 2016 effort to authorize casinos in the northern part of the state.

They say they have no plan to advance the measures, at least right now. But they also say they wanted the bills to be ready in case the recently improving Atlantic City casino market takes a turn for the worse.

“We want to see Atlantic City succeed,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a northern New Jersey Democrat and former Atlantic City casino executive. “These bills are in case Atlantic City gets into trouble. The signal it sends is that we're watching carefully to see if we need to act on this. But not at this time; I want to make that clear.”

On Jan. 14, Caputo reintroduced five bills in the Assembly that would authorize casino gambling beyond Atlantic City. A similar measure in the Senate was reintroduced the same day. The bills were also resubmitted in previous years but went nowhere.

Four years ago, Atlantic City was reeling from a string of casino closures that cost more than 11,000 jobs and billions in casino revenue. Four casinos — the Atlantic Club, Showboat, Trump Plaza and Revel — closed in 2014, followed by the Trump Taj Mahal in 2016.

Reasoning that Atlantic City was shriveling while gamblers in north Jersey lost their money in casinos in other states, proponents of casino expansion sought to change the law to allow casinos in other parts of the state.

But casino interests in Atlantic City and New York funded an effective lobbying and publicity campaign against the ballot question, in which voters were asked whether to allow two casinos in separate counties in the northern part of the state near New York City.

Bill Cortese Jr., director of that effort, called “Trenton's Bad Bet,” said he was not surprised to see the measures resurface, even though no apparent effort has been made to enact them this year.

But he said in the four years since the referendum was shot down, Atlantic City's casino market has stabilized in part by reopening two of the shuttered casinos. The Taj Mahal reopened as Hard Rock, and Revel reopened as the Ocean Casino Resort.

“The jobs and the growth that has been added since then, probably north of 7,000 jobs and millions in revenue, is something we can be proud of,” he said. “But there are still a good number of people in Trenton that still want to push for casinos in north Jersey.”

State Senate President Steve Sweeney said none of the reintroduced bills will be allowed to advance through the Legislature; they are currently in committees.

“Atlantic City is doing very well right now; we’re not going to reverse it,” Sweeney said.

The referendum put before voters did not specify where the new casinos would be built, one of many ambiguities widely seen as helping to sink the measure. But the most commonly mentioned locations were the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford and a site in Jersey City.

Jeff Gural, who operates the Meadowlands and has partnered with Hard Rock International on a future casino project at the Meadowlands, said he did not ask anyone in the state Legislature to reintroduce the bills this year. He said he will wait until New York state allows casinos in or near New York City before making a renewed push for a casino at his track.

“I am prepared to wait until the three downstate casinos open in New York and see how people living in northern New Jersey feel about paying the toll to drive over the George Washington Bridge to gamble,” he said. “My guess is they will not be happy.”

In the meantime, Gural is quite happy with the sports betting operation at the Meadowlands, which made nearly $150 million in revenue last year, by far the most in the state.

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Associated Press writer Michael Catalini in Trenton contributed to this story.

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Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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