Powerful Backers of Gambling in North Jersey Decide to Fold Their Hand

Chase Brush | September 23, 2016 | More Issues, Politics
Our Turn NJ pulls its TV spot, saying voters ‘very negative’ about November ballot referendum

The prospect of expanding gaming to New Jersey’s northern reaches took a huge hit yesterday, with one of the major supporters of this year’s ballot referendum announcing its decision to pull back on an expensive ad campaign.

Our Turn NJ, the group behind a 30-second TV commercial airing across the state and espousing the benefits that may follow an expansion of gambling from a beleaguered Atlantic City into a densely populated North Jersey, said it would suspend the campaign in a press release on Thursday. It cited less-than-hopeful data about the November referendum’s fate. Recent polls — including the group’s own internal polling, it said — show supporters aren’t behind the idea, which calls for the construction of a casino in two northern locations.

In a joint statement, Paul Fireman and Jeff Gural, the two men who launched the group in hopes that it might sway public opinion on the issue, said the current political climate and a lack of detail about the proposed expansion “have proved overwhelming.” They referenced a poll that found voters have a “very negative outlook” on the move north and “extremely low confidence that the revenue promised in the Casino Expansion Amendment will be delivered as it is promised.”

Nineteen percent of New Jersey voters believe that the state is headed in the right direction, the statement said, while just 10 percent have a high level of confidence that the state will deliver on the benefits stated in the ballot measure.

“We believe deeply that gaming expansion to Northern New Jersey is a remarkable opportunity that should not be squandered,” the statement read. “We have committed $4 billion in private investment to this state to create world class resort destinations with gaming. The benefits include 43,000 new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in recaptured revenue — a rare opportunity for New Jersey.”

“The data, however, speaks for itself,” it added.

The announcement comes as lawmakers in Trenton have cooled to debate about North Jersey gaming. After a year-long back and forth over the issue, legislators gave their final approval in March to a resolution that called for the referendum to go before voters this fall. Sponsors of the measure, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), 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 as new casinos have opened in neighboring states like New York and Pennsylvania.

Some of that revenue would be funneled back to Atlantic City, which has seen a collapse in its casino market in recent years. Gaming in the state has been limited to the beleaguered city for over a decade.

But even after the resolution’s passage, lawmakers have continued in recent weeks to squabble over the details of the measure. Questions remain over where the casinos would be built, what would be the tax rate on their revenue, and who would get to handle the money to help Atlantic City. Gural and Fireman both warned earlier this month that the lack of fine print might deter voters from the idea, but lawmakers opted to wait to craft legislation to answer those questions until after the referendum.

An exception was Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), a vocal proponent of the new construction, who introduced a resolution last week broadly outlining possible options for the new casinos, including the designation of state revenue from the casinos for funding aid to senior-citizen programs, public space and transportation improvements, and support for Atlantic City’s redevelopment as a full tourist destination. The resolution did not, however, name a tax rate for the new gaming halls.

This latest development will certainly encourage opponents of the referendum, who have argued New Jersey has more to lose economically if casinos opened in north Jersey and begin competing with those still in business in Atlantic City. Trenton’s Bad Bet, a group backed by Atlantic City and out-of-state interests that has run an opposing ad campaign over the past few weeks, released its own statement following Gural and Fireman’s announcement in which they criticized the businessmen for “throwing temper tantrums” over initiative’s increasingly likely failure.

Gural, who owns the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, and Fireman, who is the chairman of Fireman Capital Partners and developer of Jersey City’s Liberty National Golf Course — two locations where the proposed casinos might be built — smacked the other group in their statement, saying that “even knowing that an out-of-country gaming company that sends New Jerseyans’ gaming dollars to Malaysia is funding opposition ads” had not helped to sway voters.

Gural and Fireman also cited a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released this week that shows 58 percent of voters disapprove of the referendum, while 35 percent approve.

“The casino expansion referendum otherwise known as Question One will hurt New Jersey families costing the state tens of thousands of jobs and billions in economic losses,” said Bill Cortese, executive director for Trenton’s Bad Bet. “Trenton politicians need to focus on doing their jobs starting with addressing the bankrupt transportation fund, properly funding school districts, meeting their pension obligations, and addressing rising property taxes. It is past time to focus on meeting promises to New Jersey citizens instead of placating special interests with yet another bail out.”

If the referendum fails to pass in November, supporters of the measure will have to wait another two years to try again, according to state law. Gural and Fireman noted that the current campaign has paralleled the state’s last effort, in 1974, when New Jersey voters rejected a ballot initiative to legalize gaming due to a lack of specifics about where casinos would be located. Two years later, a revised ballot question passed.