Should casino gaming be allowed in North Jersey?

The state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Assembly Judiciary Committee have both passed separate measures that call for the voters of the Garden state to decide that question, in the form of a Constitutional amendment, in November.

The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, stipulates that two new casinos to be built in North Jersey would have to be owned by companies already operating casinos in Atlantic City, while the Assembly version contains no such provision.

“Expanding gaming means expanding our economy, expanding gaming means expanding the revenues that are so important for the people throughout the state,” Sweeney said. “This will serve Atlantic City as much as it will serve the entire state. This plan is all about Atlantic City’s future. It’s all about North Jersey’s economy, but most importantly it’s all about New Jersey’s future.”

The Sweeney plan would force any North Jersey casinos to be closely aligned with gaming halls in AC.

“This is jobs, jobs, jobs, north, central, south,” Sweeney said. “And it will help to strengthen the economy of the state.”

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, the prime sponsor of the measure passed by the Assembly committee, said the stress on Atlantic City has been unrelenting, the renaissance envisioned for AC has failed, and as result, thousands of people have lost their jobs.

“I believe the only way we’re going to be able to save the gaming business in the state is allowing the voters, as they did in 1976, to make a decision about where they want to have gaming in the state," he said. "Not me, not you not the governor, not anyone has the right to stop the people of the state of New Jersey from making that decision."

He added: “This is an effort not, in any way, anti-Atlantic City. This an effort of the legislature to put something on the ballot that will bring the gaming business back."

Many South Jersey lawmakers and business leaders don’t agree that casinos in North Jersey will help AC.

Joe Kelly, the president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber, said he opposes the plan for a number of reasons, but most importantly because of saturation.

“Gaming facilities have increased by 38 percent,” he said, “but the amount of those gaming has remained constant.”

He points out Atlantic City has lost 12,000 jobs, four casinos have closed in the past year and the region now has the highest foreclosure rate in the country — but finally, the situation is starting to stabilize.

“If we change the game right now, it’s going to create a more unstable environment," Kelly said. "If we have casinos in other parts of the state, we could lose potentially an additional 14 thousand jobs. That could mean another two to four more casinos closing and cause an unemployment rate of 18 percent.”

The legislature is expected to hammer out differences in the two bills, and put a unified measure up for a vote in the coming days or weeks.