Opinion: Gambling Fever Taking Its Toll on New Jersey Democrats

Carl Golden | June 22, 2015 | Opinion
Beyond proposed sites across the state, possibility of gaming outside of Atlantic City calls for consummate timing

Carl Golden
Intraparty disputes are common in politics and, while their resolution doesn’t always please all those involved, the settlement is usually accepted, everyone puts on a happy face and moves on.

Not so, with the division that’s split legislative Democrats over amending the Constitution to permit casino gambling outside off Atlantic City. It’s likely this dispute won’t be overcome quite so easily or quickly.

Aside from the expected pitting of South Jersey leaders against their North Jersey counterparts, regional interests are now competing with one another over potential sites for gaming halls, should a referendum make it to the ballot and win approval.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, mindful that keeping his South Jersey base solid is vital as he anticipates seeking his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2017, is urging a deliberate approach, putting off the ballot question until 2016.

Meanwhile, North Jersey Democratic legislators have participated gleefully in high-profile news conferences with developers unveiling grandiose billion dollar plans for casinos at the Meadowlands and at Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

While the bulk of the discussion has centered on allowing casinos in Essex, Hudson, and Bergen counties, Republican and Democratic legislators alike from Ocean, Middlesex, and Somerset counties have insisted their regions deserve consideration as well. One senator went one better, suggesting casinos be permitted anywhere in the state and allow market forces to decide which succeed and which don’t.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, standing alongside onetime rival Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, insisted that his city deserved a casino and confidently predicted that it would get one.

Sweeney, clearly annoyed as the internal strife played out publicly and threatened to spiral out of control altogether, decried the rush to line up with potential investors and developers, characterizing it as a “scrum” of individuals more concerned with seeking attention for their cause than in carefully considering the far-reaching implications of expanding casino gambling.

Implicit in Sweeney’s criticism was his concern that his authority as Senate president faced a serious challenge from those who demanded speedy action to approve the amendment for ballot placement this November.

Sweeney’s position has been that the 2016 election would be more favorable because the presidential contest would produce a far greater voter turnout than this year when Assembly candidates lead the ticket.

Essex County Sen. Dick Codey, whose history with Sweeney has been frosty ever since Sweeney defeated him in a contest for Senate president, posited the theory that the scrum referred to and the turmoil over where and how many casinos would be approved was contrived, a plot concocted by South Jersey interests to create such confusion and uncertainty that the proposed amendment would be rejected by voters.

Codey seemed to be suggesting that Sweeney sought to be perceived as amenable to casino development in North Jersey while, at the same time, raising enough questions to defeat the amendment and protect the interests of Atlantic City and South Jersey.

Proponents of acting this year argue that any delay would place the state at a serious competitive disadvantage, providing New York in particular an opportunity to move ahead with casino development in the metropolitan region, luring gamblers from the populous North Jersey market while continuing to cede an edge to casinos operating within an hour’s drive in Pennsylvania.

[related]They are suspicious of Sweeney’s motives for delaying the referendum, contending there is no evidence a higher voter turnout will be the determining factor in winning approval and that the state should demonstrate clearly its commitment to casino expansion by moving as quickly as possible.

If, they say, the referendum is delayed until 2016, it would require at least another year for the investigating and licensing process to play out before actual construction could begin on gaming facilities, pushing the start of operations into 2018.

Valuable time will be lost, they say and, more to the point, potentially hundreds of millions in tax revenue as well. They predict tens of thousands of new jobs will be created — jobs badly needed — and the state’s lagging economy will receive an enormous boost.

While Sweeney has dropped his long-held opposition to gambling expansion, other South Jersey legislators have remained adamantly opposed, arguing that the impact on Atlantic City’s remaining gaming halls would be so severe as to force additional closures, greater job losses, and costly decline in tourism activity.

Supporters of the expansion have pledged that a portion of the profits from North Jersey gambling would be dedicated to help Atlantic City, but details are scarce and the pledge has not convinced opponents to soften their position.

Given the constricted timetable involved — the amendment would need to be approved for ballot placement by early August — it appears likely that Sweeney will get his way. As Senate president, he controls the flow of legislation to the floor, and it would be a simple matter for him to delay consideration past the deadline.

With most of the attention directed toward questions of the timing of the amendment, potential sites for casinos, and tax implications, there’s been little discussion of whether the referendum would be approved no matter when it appeared on the ballot.

A year’s delay would certainly give opponents ample time to organize, mobilize, and raise money to carry on a campaign aimed at rejecting the proposal. With sufficient financial backing, opposition forces could achieve equal footing with supporters, putting the outcome in question.

History suggests a clear ambivalence among New Jerseyans over whether and where to permit casino gambling, defeating an amendment in 1974 by more than 400,000 votes, but approving it by a nearly identical margin two years later if it was confined to Atlantic City.

Granted, times have changed and gambling has become such an accepted part of everyday life that opposition is no longer as deep-seated as it was 40 years ago.

However, the divisions it has exposed in the Democratic Party and the longer-term impact — including on the 2017 governor’s contest — will achieve as much importance, interest, and debate as the proposal itself.