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Christie, Democratic Leaders Join Forces to Bring Casinos to North Jersey

Constitutional amendment to expand gambling into northern part of state could mean thousands of jobs, millions in revenue, and a lifeline for struggling Atlantic City

sweeney, christie, prieto
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (left), Gov. Chris Christie, and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto announcing the agreement on the North Jersey casino question.

Lawmakers, influential private-sector unions, and Gov. Chris Christie are preparing to make a major push this year to change the state constitution to allow for an expansion of casino gambling into north Jersey. The effort is well worth it: thousands of new jobs, millions in revenue, and the creation of a new source of money for struggling Atlantic City are at the heart of the upcoming campaign.

What’s driving the initiative is a last-minute deal struck inside the State House yesterday -- brokered at least in part by Christie. The peripatetic governor is saying he helped end a stalemate between Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate who for weeks could not agree on how big two new casinos in north Jersey should be and who should qualify to run them.

Christie’s involvement should come in handy. A proposed constitutional amendment seeking voter approval for the new casinos will likely garner enough support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers for a 3/5 supermajority, which is what will be needed to get the issue before voters this November.

At stake, according to the casino proposal’s supporters, will be $7 billion in new investment that will come to north Jersey, including $4 billion in the short-term. As many as 12,000 new jobs and hundreds of millions in new revenue for the state budget are also expected if voters ultimately authorize the expansion of casino gambling.

“That’s what this is all about,” said Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen).

But lawmakers from the Atlantic City region and others who oppose the initiative are pledging to work hard to convince voters to reject the proposal this fall. They say, if passed, it is likely to lead to more casino closures in Atlantic City, and the loss of thousands of jobs on top of those that have already been cut in recent years, which would have an impact on the overall state economy.

“We’ll see additional casinos close, not just in Atlantic City, but potentially in North Jersey as well,” said Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic).

The last-minute agreement on casino expansion was reached on the final full day of the Legislature’s two-year session. The deal was announced personally yesterday by Christie, a second-term Republican, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson).

Their announcement came during a news conference held in the State House on a frenetic day that also saw lawmakers work well into the evening to move hundreds of bills as the legislative session reached its final hours. And Christie also took action on another roughly 70 measures that had already been passed by lawmakers and sent to his desk.

But the movement on the casino-expansion proposal was to many the biggest development of the day.

“The most important thing in my view was to bring resolution to this issue,” said Christie, who today will continue a break from his bid to win the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination to deliver the annual State of the State address in Trenton.

“This is the way the process is supposed to work,” he said.

A key element of the agreement, which reconciled differences in competing Assembly and Senate versions of the proposed amendment that were first introduced last month, establishes a new requirement that those seeking to run casinos in north Jersey be willing to invest at least $1 billion in their facility.

Adding that hurdle addressed Prieto’s concern that North Jersey could get stuck with modest, slots-centered casinos -- which are known as “slots in a box” -- instead of the large-scale attractions that were envisioned. Ultimately, Sweeney said he agreed with including that requirement.

“We want real investment in the state of New Jersey. We don’t want slots in a box,” Sweeney said.

The deal also calls for specific timelines that would have to be met by those awarded a new casino license to ensure that it wouldn’t be allowed to languish with no action by its holder. That addresses concerns that someone who doesn’t want a new casino to open in North Jersey that would compete with others in the region could end up winning bids for the new licenses.

And surviving in the final agreement was a requirement sought by Sweeney to give Atlantic City casino license holders a first crack at getting the two casino licenses. Sweeney maintained that such an arrangement will foster more cooperation and less of a competitive division between the new casinos and those that remain in Atlantic City.

Prieto said working out a compromise was worth it because the deal in its current forms now means the right kind of casinos will come to North Jersey if voters ultimately approve the constitutional amendment.

“We want to get this right,” Prieto said. “To me, it’s all about compromise.”

And though the proposed amendment would end Atlantic City’s longtime monopoly on casino gambling in New Jersey, the proposal has been billed by supporters as offering the best helping hand for a city that has been rocked in recent years by several casino closures. Some of the revenue generated by the new casinos in North Jersey would be directed to Atlantic City to help it move away from its own overreliance on gaming.

“If you want to have any chance of saving the future of New Jersey … and giving us hope and keeping the dogs at bay in Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware, this it,” said Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex).

The deal was struck even as the Senate debated the upper house’s version of the proposed constitutional amendment before the deal agreed to by Christie, Sweeney, and Prieto was announced later in the day.

The Senate version already had support from many lawmakers from both parties and the backing of several influential private-sector labor unions, but Prieto refused to post it in the Assembly, citing a preference for his own proposed amendment. If the deadlock hadn’t been broken, the issue would likely not have advanced any further.

But now, due to the rules set out in the state constitution for getting a constitutional amendment on the November ballot, the deal means the proposal to expand casino gambling has a much easier path forward. Sponsors either have to win a simple majority in two consecutive years, or a supermajority in one to get their proposal on the ballot. With the endorsements from Christie, Sweeney, and Prieto, the new version of the proposed amendment is now likely to get supermajority support in the new legislative session that begins today.

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