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Supporters, Detractors of Casinos Outside Atlantic City Gear Up For Fall Fight

TV ads are already trying to sway voters on November referendum over go-ahead for casinos in north Jersey

The end of summer is still several weeks away, but two groups are already gearing up for Election Day with ads seeking to shape the opinion of New Jersey voters who will be asked this fall whether casino gambling should be allowed outside Atlantic City.

pro-gambling spot
Our Turn NJ is running a TV spot that favors allowing two North Jersey casinos to open.

On one side of the issue is a group called Our Turn NJ backed by Paul Fireman and Jeff Gural, two men who want to build new casinos in north Jersey. But opposing the expansion of casino gambling outside Atlantic City is a group called Trenton’s Bad Bet, which is supported by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce and the union for the resort’s casino workers.

Both groups have paid for 30-second television commercials that are already airing throughout the state.

Their competing efforts come as voters in November will be asked to decide if language should be written into the state constitution to authorize the construction of two new casinos in north Jersey. The question is going before voters four decades after they first decided to allow legalized gambling in New Jersey, with the condition that it be restricted only to casinos located within Atlantic City limits.

The proposed constitutional amendment doesn’t say exactly where the new casinos would be built, but it does require that they be located at least 72 miles from Atlantic City and not in the same county. It would also require some of the new revenue to be redirected to help revitalize Atlantic City, which has seen four casinos close in recent years and is now in danger of losing another, the Trump Taj Mahal, later this year.

anti-gambling spot
Trenton’s Bad Bet is running a TV spot arguing that New Jersey has more to lose economically if casinos open in North Jersey.

Two of the three polls on the issue so far suggest that those who want New Jersey to stand pat on casinos are in the majority. The third shows a 50-50 split.

Though lawmakers in Trenton have debated casino-expansion for over a year, they gave their final approval back in March to a resolution that called for the referendum to go before voters this fall. The sponsors of the measure argued that the new casinos would initially create thousands of new construction jobs and would also eventually allow New Jersey to recapture some of the gambling revenue that’s been lost in recent years as new casinos have opened in neighboring states like New York and Pennsylvania.

State budget records show that New Jersey once collected more than $400 million in revenue from its 8 percent tax on gross-casino revenue, but that number has now been cut in half as competition from the out-of-state casinos has increased.

The commercial that’s being aired by Our Turn NJ, the group backed by Fireman and Gural, makes the case that the state could offset those losses by allowing the two north Jersey casinos to open. The ad says state-funded programs for seniors like Meals-on-Wheels and Senior Freeze property tax relief could receive a boost if more revenue from casinos was flowing into the state budget.

“Vote ‘yes’ and support gaming expansion in northern New Jersey to protect our seniors,” the ad’s narrator says.

Gural is a real estate executive who owns the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford and Fireman is the chairman of Fireman Capital Partners and developer of Jersey City’s Liberty National Golf Course. Both men envision the new casinos opening next to their existing properties. When asked how much they are contributing to the group, a spokesman for Our Turn NJ declined to provide a specific figure yesterday but added extensive donor information will eventually be made public.

Gov. Chris Christie, who under the state constitution had no say on whether the issue should be put on the ballot, has said he also supports the expansion of casino gambling.

Meanwhile, Trenton’s Bad Bet, the group backed by the Atlantic City interests, argues New Jersey has more to lose economically if casinos opened in north Jersey and began competing directly with those that continue to operate in the already struggling seaside resort. The group’s commercial also makes the case that voters have no reason to trust the lawmakers in Trenton to get this issue right, citing the state’s ongoing problems with public-employee pension system debt and high property taxes.

“The politicians are stacking the deck so their rich, special-interest friends win big,” the ad says.

Donations to Trenton’s Bad Bet are also not being disclosed at this point, but the group will do so before voters go to the polls in November, executive director Bill Cortese said yesterday.

In three recent polls on this issue, two showed voters are opposed to allowing casino gambling outside Atlantic City and the other showed an even split.

The results of a survey released last month by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll showed 57 percent of the state’s registered voters opposed expanding casino-gambling outside Atlantic City with 35 percent in favor. Another 8 percent of those polled had yet to make up their mind. Opposition to the expansion of casino gambling was as high as 70 percent back in 2009 but had dropped to 50 percent at the beginning of 2016, according to the FDU poll.

Monmouth University’s Polling Institute has also gauged public opinion on the casino-expansion issue recently, with the results of a survey it released in June indicating voters were deadlocked at 48 percent in support and 48 percent opposed. Another 3 percent of the voters polled by Monmouth said they were undecided, and 1 percent were not planning to vote at all.

A survey of New Jersey residents conducted by the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll in February -- before the referendum won final approval from lawmakers – measured opposition to expanding casino gambling at 49 percent and support at 44 percent. Another 2 percent of those surveyed said gambling should not be permitted anywhere in the state and 5 percent were undecided.

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