TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Atlantic City's monopoly on casino gambling in the state, enshrined in law and fiercely protected by politicians for nearly 40 years, began to crumble Monday as lawmakers introduced a bill that would let voters decide whether to allow three new casinos in North Jersey.

Meadowlands Racetrack (Meadowlands)

The bill would schedule a referendum in which voters would be asked to approve up to three casinos in Bergen, Essex or Hudson counties.

It comes as efforts to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City — which has been banned by the state constitution for 37 years — rapidly gain momentum while Atlantic City's casino industry withers from ever-increasing competition in neighboring states. Atlantic City casinos fear competition within the state's own borders could decimate much of its remaining casino industry; four of the city's 12 casinos shut down last year.

Part of the tax revenue generated by the new casinos would be earmarked to help Atlantic City recover, but crucial details, including the tax rate they would pay and how much would go to Atlantic City, need to be worked out in subsequent legislation. On Wednesday, Hard Rock International and the Meadowlands Racetrack will unveil their plans for a casino at the East Rutherford track that some analysts say could be among the most successful casinos in the nation.

"The business has changed," said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a Democrat from Essex County. "To survive in anything, you have to adapt. If you don't adapt, you become extinct."

Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat from Bergen County, said he supports two northern new Jersey casinos, adding that they would "create jobs, generate economic growth, restore the financial health of the state's gaming industry, compete with casinos in border states and help Atlantic City through its fiscal crisis."

“For years our state has shelved the possibility of new gaming destinations to protect Atlantic City, but that strategy has proved ineffective because more and more dollars are going into New York and Pennsylvania and yet Atlantic City is still suffering," said Assemblywoman Valeria Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood).

The bill would have to be approved by Aug. 3 to make it onto this November's general election ballot. Republican Gov. Chris Christie last week endorsed a referendum for this fall as long as part of the tax revenue from the new casinos would go to help Atlantic City.

In addition to the proposal for a casino at the Meadowlands, footwear magnate Paul Fireman has proposed a casino in Jersey City on the Hudson River waterfront, directly across from Manhattan. There also has been talk of a casino in Newark, the state's largest city, but that is seen as more of a longshot. Oceanport in Monmouth County, where the Monmouth Park Racetrack also wants a casino, would be excluded from consideration under the bill.

Jeff Gural, the Meadowlands Racetrack president, has volunteered to pay the same 55 percent tax rate as Pennsylvania's casinos do and share part of it with Atlantic City. He has said two northern New Jersey casinos could provide Atlantic City with $2 billion worth of subsidies over 10 years.

But southern New Jersey politicians vehemently oppose expanding casinos beyond Atlantic City.

"Today's announcement is a blow to hard-working middle-class families in Atlantic County and throughout the state," said Chris Brown, a Republican assemblyman who represents the Atlantic City area. "It makes absolutely no sense to expand gaming outside Atlantic City when every expert and analyst will tell you the market is already oversaturated."

“Casino gaming in north Jersey would not only be a blow to middle class families in Atlantic County, but it would be a blow to middle class families throughout the state. All of the studies indicate the only thing that gaming in north Jersey will do is cannibalize the market in Atlantic City thus producing less money, less revenue for our seniors and disabled," Assemblyman Chris A. Brown (R-Northfield) said Monday.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) believes the state should be focused on Atlantic City.

“The emphasis should be on Atlantic City and not north Jersey casinos right now. My intent is to fight against north Jersey casinos. I’ve put my position out there. I’m for fighting for Atlantic City and fighting for the middle class.”

Last week, analysts and casino executives speaking at a major gambling conference in Atlantic City agreed that the casino market in the Northeast is saturated. Ed Sutor, president of Dover Downs casino in Delaware, said, "You're just moving money around" without growing the overall market.

Monday's bill was sponsored by Caputo and Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Raj Mukherji.

Kevin McArdle contributed to this report.

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