Political fights could keep North Jersey casinos from getting to the ballot
Legislative leaders agreed Thursday that there should be a question on the November ballot asking voters if they’d like to amend the constitution to allow two casinos to operate in North Jersey.
However, a fierce battle between State Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Thorofare) and Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto (D-Secaucus) is threatening to derail the plan.
The Senate president said both North Jersey casino licenses should go to companies already operating casinos in Atlantic City because they already know how things work in the Garden State. The speaker insisted that one license should be open to all bidders on the free market. Neither was willing to budge Thursday as they accused each other of being unwilling to compromise and blocking the chance of casinos outside of Atlantic City.
“I’ve offered the Speaker numerous ways to get to a solution on this. He’s chosen not to,” said Sweeney. “I have the votes in my house to pass my bill and worked hard with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass this bill (SCR-185). It would be a shame for the Speaker to block this from happening.”
An early concern for Prieto was that existing Atlantic City casino operators would just sit on the new licenses, but Sweeney said the two agreed on a timeline where steps would have be taken to build north Jersey casinos or the licenses would go to somebody else. Another worry was Atlantic City casinos would build small casinos in the north or so-called “slots in a box.” Sweeney said there was now enabling legislation that would require a minimum $1 billion investment in a North Jersey casino.
“Where I’ve come from one spot to get close to the other bill, the other bill really has not moved toward mine (ACR-2),” Prieto said. “Look at my bill where it is today and see how it has evolved and my bill has moved all the way to his.”
The two leaders each claim to have given in on issues to appease the other, but the licensing issue is non-negotiable.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be fighting people in northern New Jersey from building two casinos,” Sweeney said.
Prieto said he had the votes needed to pass his version, but it would not be a heavy lift to get the needed 48 votes in the Assembly and 24 in Senate before August to get the question on the November 2016 ballot if that what it took to hammer out a final deal.
Sweeney said if Prieto didn’t post the Assembly version that would indicate he didn’t have the votes in the Assembly. The Senate president said he has the votes to pass his version and he will absolutely post it for a vote Monday.
"It has to be a compromise and to be a compromise it takes two to Tango," Prieto said.
Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.