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NJ Lawmakers Go All In on Sports Betting, Law Awaits Governor’s Signature

After Supreme Court threw out federal law that prohibited legalized sports gambling in New Jersey, state lawmakers fast-tracked a bill to allow it. Not everybody’s happy

Sports betting
Credit: Creative Commons

State lawmakers voted yesterday to establish a set of regulations for legalized sports gambling, just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a federal law that had been keeping states like New Jersey on the sidelines for decades.

The only question now is how quickly Gov. Phil Murphy can sign the legislation to allow the state’s first legal sports bets to be made.

Under a bill that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the Assembly and Senate, those bets would be allowed to take place at casinos in Atlantic City, and at horsetracks in New Jersey. Bets could also be made online, but only if the servers for those operations are located at a casino or racetrack.

Sponsors praised the bill yesterday, saying it provides a much-needed shot-in-the-arm for Atlantic City and the state’s horseracing industry. The state will levy a tax rate of 8.5 percent on in-person gambling, and another 1.25 percent tax to benefit Atlantic City and the host communities of the racetracks. The tax rate will be 13 percent for online bets, plus the 1.25 percent surcharge. The Legislature’s initial revenue projection for sports betting assumes up to $17 million in annual revenue in the first year.

“This will bring jobs to our state and help put an end to illegal wagering,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester). “I can’t hide my excitement for what’s in store.”

When will governor act?

Murphy, a Democrat, previously has said he supports legalized sports betting in New Jersey, but it’s unclear how quickly he will act; it could be at least several days before his legal staff completes a full review of the bill.

The measure won praise from Atlantic City officials yesterday, and the chief executive of Monmouth Park said he could be ready to go within hours of the governor taking action, as major sporting events like the finals for the National Basketball Association are already underway this month. But representatives for the NBA, Major League Baseball and the Professional Golfers’ Association are questioning whether the bill contains enough precautions to protect against match fixing and other abuses.

The push to legalize sports gambling in New Jersey goes back nearly a decade, and in 2011 voters here approved by a 2-1 margin a referendum seeking to allow betting on all professional sports and on collegiate games played outside the state. The following year, then Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation sponsored by former Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) that established sports gambling at Atlantic City casinos and at horserace tracks, a direct challenge to a 1992 federal law that only allowed sports betting in Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon.

The New Jersey law brought on a lawsuit filed by professional sports leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which blocked the law from being enacted. The state tried again, by passing a different sports-betting law in 2014; that brought on another lawsuit, leading to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued on May 14.

Lesniak wants to be first to bet

Lesniak was in the State House yesterday, watching as lawmakers in both houses easily passed the sports-betting measure, by a 73-0 margin in the Assembly, and a 37-0 margin in the Senate.

“What do you do for an encore after this,” Lesniak said, before promising he would be the first to place a bet at Monmouth Park once the racetrack officially opens its sports-betting operation.

The bill that lawmakers approved yesterday will allow bets to be placed on all professional sporting events, including those in New Jersey, as well as on collegiate sporting events that do not involve a New Jersey-based school or those that take place in New Jersey. Betting on high-school sports would be prohibited, and wagering would also be banned for anyone under 21. While in-person gambling could take place immediately under the bill signed yesterday, it allows 30 days for online sports-betting regulations to be written.

The measure bans all players, coaches, referees, umpires, team employees, and officials of the major sports leagues from participating in sports wagering involving their own sports league. Those who own more than 10 percent of a team would be also be banned from taking or placing bets on any games that are overseen by their sports’ governing body.

The bill was first drafted in early May and underwent several amendments as it moved on a fast track through the legislative process. Dan Bryan, the governor’s press secretary, did not indicate in a statement provided to NJ Spotlight yesterday how long it will take Murphy’s office to review the final draft of the legislation.

Critics say law needs to be improved

“Governor Murphy looks forward to closely reviewing the sports-betting legislation that was recently passed by the Legislature,” Bryan said. “The Governor has long been supportive of New Jersey's right to allow sports betting and he wants to ensure that the proposed regulatory scheme is fair and reasonable.”

While Delaware jumped ahead of New Jersey and enacted legalized sports betting, Atlantic City Council president Marty Small predicted his town would eventually become the region’s major center for sports gamblers given its well-established casino and resort industry.

“I believe that Atlantic City has more amenities to offer than anyone else,” Small said. “I can just imagine football Sundays in Atlantic City.”

Dennis Drazin, chief executive officer of Monmouth Park, said he would wait for Murphy to act before offering in-person sports betting, but added he could be ready to go within hours of a bill signing.

“It’s been seven years,” Drazin said. “I’m anxious to open.”

But representatives from the sports leagues said they would like to see Murphy work with lawmakers to improve the bill, raising questions about the transparency of the betting operations in a statement provided to reporters yesterday.

“The Legislature’s decision to ignore the legitimate interests of sports leagues, universities and sports fans is not in the state’s long-term interests,” the statement said. “We urge Governor Murphy and legislators to fix the legislation so the state can have a first-class betting market, while preserving the integrity of sports for New Jersey's passionate fans.”

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