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New Jersey Wants More Off-Track Betting Options

Horse Racing
Flickr User Jessica Cross

New Jersey is giving the whip to its stalled effort to increase off-track wagering on horse races.

A state Senate committee approved a bill Thursday that would let up to 12 bars or restaurants set up off-track betting centers. It also approved another bill that would give holders of off-track permits that are not yet built six months to decide whether to go forward with those plans or lose their permits.

An Assembly committee is expected to approve the same bills Thursday afternoon, setting them up for final votes next week. New Jersey has authorized 15 off-track betting locations, but only three have been built. Racing industry executives blame the uncertainty surrounding their sport in New Jersey, including ongoing efforts to find a private operator for Monmouth Park, and the end of annual casino subsidies to the tracks.

“This is essentially a different approach to the off-track wagering problem,” said Sen. Jim Whelan, a south Jersey Democrat and former mayor of Atlantic City. “It speaks to the failure of the racing industry to get their facilities up and running.”

Barbara DeMarco, a lobbyist for Atlantic City Race Course, said the industry has been in turmoil for the past two years. Challenges include Gov. Chris Christie’s efforts to end subsidies for horse racing and make it self-sufficient, and the state’s continuing refusal to allow slot machines or table games while tracks in states all around it offer casino-style gambling.

“Now we have bars and taverns in a pilot program,” she said, asking for a blanket one-year extension for holders of off-track racing permits to get started.

One of the bills approved Thursday would give those permit holders six months to decide whether to move forward with plans for their off-track betting facility, and would require them to post $1 million that would be forfeited to a horsemen’s association if the project does not get built, or at least show “substantial progress.” The horsemen would be required to use the $1 million to build an off-track site of their own.

The other bill approved would authorize anyone who has an agreement with the state to buy or lease a state-owned horse track to pick up to 12 bars or restaurants for a pilot program to establish off-track betting terminals. The bill originally would have authorized 60 locations. There would be no more than 20 terminals statewide.

The businesses would be vetted and approved by the state Racing Commission. The pilot program would expire at the end of three years, when the legislature would decide whether to continue it.

Businesses applying for the program would have to be located in the state’s northern counties, comprising the traditional market of the Meadowlands Racetrack. The cutoff line would be northern Ocean County, and the state could reject any location it feels is too close to an existing racetrack or off-track betting outlet.

Communities hosting such a facility would get 1 percent of its annual revenues for general municipal purposes. Donald Weinbaum, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, said many problem gamblers also have drinking problems.

“Placing terminals in bars is likely to push some of them over the edge,” he said. “It significantly increases the number of locations where betting will be available in New Jersey.”

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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