An eleventh hour agreement brokered by Governor Chris Christie could lead to New Jersey residents voting on casino expansion when they cast their ballots this November, when turnout will be markedly higher due to 2016 being a presidential election year.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) have been quibbling back and forth over specifics, as both men pushed their North Jersey casino expansion proposal (which are quite similar but diverge on several key points) to be used as the vehicle for casino expansion outside of Atlantic City.
At a press conference with Prieto and Sweeney, Christie trumpeted the deal, stating, “I want to say to everybody that this involved a great deal of compromise on the parts of all parties. Nobody here is getting exactly what they wanted or what they asked for. The most important thing in my view was to give voters the opportunity.”
The deal was finalized on Monday, the final day of the legislative session, but despite brokering a hard-fought compromise between Prieto and Sweeney, the proposal still has legislative hurdles to pass before it lands on the 2016 ballot.
Before the measure goes to the voters, it still has to pass both houses with a three-fifths majority vote. The vote will need to occur sometime in the next six months in order for the measure to make it onto the November ballot.
The bill isn’t a slam dunk to pass both houses, as several lawmakers are on record as believing casino expansion will be the coup de grace for Atlantic City, nor is it a favorite to pass in a referendum vote, as the most recent polling data on North Jersey casino expansion resulted in 56 percent of respondents against the idea.
What’s in the compromise bill
Despite Christie’s assertion that the agreement was a grand compromise by both sides, the compromise bill is essentially Sweeney’s proposal, with a single late addition by Prieto.
Sweeney’s bill allows for up to two northern New Jersey casinos to be built, with the caveat that the licenses would be restricted to companies that already own casinos in Atlantic City, although outside investors could own up to 49 percent. Sweeney’s vision is that players can earn comps in a North Jersey casino that can later be used in Atlantic City, or vice versa.
That being said, Atlantic City casino corporations would be given six months to present their proposals, and if the deadline is not met, the licenses would then be opened up to any company.
Another big part of the bill, and one of the main drivers for casino expansion outside of Atlantic City, is reallocating funds to Atlantic City to bolster the city’s declining casino industry.
Under the proposal, beginning in the second year Atlantic City would receive 50 percent of the first $150 million in tax revenue generated by the new casinos. Atlantic City’s share would decrease by 10 percent for every $150 million in additional revenue, down to 20 percent.
The single bone thrown to Prieto was the insistence that potential licensees guarantee to invest at least $1 billion in their casino project.