Some New Jersey lawmakers are busy preparing for the day they expect casino gambling to expand to the Meadowlands.
A state Assembly committee on Thursday advanced a bill that would create a commission to study expanding casino gambling to East Rutherford.
Similar proposals in the past have been hotly opposed by southern New Jersey lawmakers who fear it would decimate the already-struggling Atlantic City casino market. Casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York have cut deeply into Atlantic City's casino business, which fell from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006 to what will likely be less than $3 billion this year.
"Right now we are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year being siphoned off to other places," said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, an Essex County Democrat. "If this continues, there will be no market to go to."
The state is halfway through a five-year period of incentives and improvements that Gov. Chris Christie instituted to help Atlantic City before considering ending the resort's exclusive right to host casinos. They included creation of a tourism district to bring additional safety and cleanliness resources; relief from some costly regulations for casinos; and a casino-funded $30 million annual program to market Atlantic City.
Under the legislation, a 13-member panel would evaluate how well those reforms are working and would consider the future prospect of a casino in Bergen County. It would issue a report within a year.
Among those supporting the plan are leaders of New Jersey's horse racing industry, who have long wanted the slot machines and table games that so-called "racinos" in neighboring states have.
The Casino Association of New Jersey, the Atlantic City casinos' trade association, opposes the bill. Its president, Tony Rodio, who is president of the Tropicana Casino and Resort, said expanding casinos beyond Atlantic City would be "potentially catastrophic" for the seaside resort, which has invested $6 billion in itself over the past decade.
"Although many see the opening of a Meadowlands casino as a panacea to the increased competition from nearby out-of-state convenience markets, it is not," Rodio wrote in a letter to the committee. "To suggest that New Jersey can support two models of gaming — a destination model in Atlantic City and a convenience form of gaming elsewhere in the state, is wrong."
Rodio said the approval or even serious consideration of a Meadowlands casino will discourage new or continuing investment in Atlantic City, and increase the cost of borrowing for the existing casinos.
Caputo said the legislature needs to start evaluating the Atlantic City reforms now, and not wait until five years have passed.
"It's approaching the fourth year. Before we get to the fifth year, we should know what our strategic plan is," he said. "That's been the problem with Atlantic City. We can't wait for a calamity to happen."
Lawmakers also said Internet gambling, which started last month in New Jersey, needs to be evaluated as well in considering whether to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City.
The bill now goes to the full Assembly for consideration.
Copyright AP - Associated Press