The stars are aligning again behind Internet gambling at Atlantic City’s casinos.
By James Rutherford
Provided a deal can be crafted to appease New Jersey’s racing industry — a share of revenues would appear to be the most direct solution — and Gov. Chris Christie can be prevailed upon to assent to such a carve-out for the tracks, a position he has stridently opposed — supporters in the Democratic-controlled Legislature believe they can get an intrastate-only law on the books before the Senate and Assembly adjourn for the summer.
Raymond Lesniak, Internet gambling’s biggest champion in the Statehouse and sponsor of the Senate bill, predicted passage in both houses by Thursday, 15 March, a critical day for legislative business as it was likely to be the last one before lawmakers recess to begin working in earnest on the annual state budget.
But that was not going to happen, according to Deputy Speaker of the Assembly John Burzichelli, who is sponsoring the lower house’s version, currently under consideration by the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee, where he is vice chairman. He and committee Chairman Ruben Ramos, also a primary sponsor, say they don’t see the five-member panel voting on their bill before May.
Lesniak & Co. hope he’s right. As the senator recently told The Associated Press, “It’s extremely important we get going now, so as to be able to compete with other states for online gaming and generate those revenues for our casinos.”
The Iowa Senate passed a legalization measure on 13 March. California lawmakers are considering a bill. Nevada is already taking applications for licenses, the first of which could be awarded as early as May.
For proponents in New Jersey, what matters ultimately is that when the Legislature does vote it will vote yes.
The Assembly version appears to be making progress in allaying concerns over its constitutionality, Ramos’ committee having taken testimony from two experts who assured members that an intrastate business model is legal as long as the infrastructure (computer servers and the like) is housed in Atlantic City, where the industry is restricted under the 1976 referendum that amended the state Constitution to authorize casino gambling. So the issue turns on the question of where a bet in cyberspace is deemed to take place, at the location of the bettor or at the place where the bet is received.
Where Christie stands isn’t entirely clear. A pro-casino industry Republican, he says he supports Internet gambling in principle as long as it adheres to the 1976 law, which is to say, as long as Atlantic City’s operators retain their monopoly.
His level of comfort appears to have grown since December, when the Justice Department restated its position on federal law and pulling back from its opposition to everything but sports betting. But the governor’s casino industry bias places him squarely at odds with the horsemen, with whom he’s been feuding since he took office. He was instrumental in eliminating a longstanding subsidy the casinos paid the struggling racing industry as compensation for their monopoly on slot machines. At the same time, he has blocked various attempts to expand machine gaming to the tracks, a move that racing insists is critical to its financial survival.
“What we want is a piece of the action,” he says, “because it will kill us if we don’t.”
There is no shortage of legislators, mostly in the north of the state, who sympathize.
If it comes down to a constitutional amendment, legalization could be delayed indefinitely. The process requires public hearings and the assent of three-fifths of both the Senate and Assembly to get a question on the ballot. And once there its fate would be anything but assured. A 2011 poll of 800 registered voters found opponents of online gambling outnumbering supporters by upwards of 2 to 1. A more recent survey shows the odds shifting in favor of legalization, but at around 50-50 it is impossible to call.