North Jersey casino vote bill advances without key details
A plan to let New Jersey voters decide in November whether to authorize two new casinos in the northern part of the state is moving forward in the Legislature.
But key details are still missing, including the tax rate the new casinos would pay, and where they would be located.
A bill to hold a referendum in November on casino expansion has been approved by committees in the Senate and Assembly, which took the most recent vote Monday morning. The referendum would amend the state Constitution to permit casino gambling outside of Atlantic City.
Here's a look at where the bill stands and what lies ahead:
THE TAX RATE
Lawmakers are pushing forward with the bill while leaving crucial details for the "enabling legislation" to be hashed out in the future. No timetable has been given for the crafting or enactment of that legislation, and a proposed ballot question that would go before voters in November indicates those decisions could be made after voters decide whether to approve the new casinos.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, an Atlantic City-area Republican, said voters need to know how much tax revenue the north Jersey casinos will generate before they can intelligently decide whether to approve them.
"Wouldn't you want to know how much money is coming back to the state?" he asked. "If you were running a business, before you opened another franchise and competed against yourself, these are some very basic questions that you would want to know."
He predicted the amount coming in from the new casinos would be offset by the amount lost from Atlantic City, where he envisioned three of the remaining eight casinos would close over the new competition.
Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a north Jersey Democrat, said the tax rate should be struck before voters go to the polls.
"When you go to the public and try to sell the referendum, you have to have this in place," he said. "Otherwise you're not in a very strong position."
Legislative leaders have not committed to setting a tax rate before the vote. Senate President Steve Sweeney said he wants to get the referendum bill passed before worrying about the details of the enabling legislation.
"Let's get this one first," he said Monday. "There will be a discussion either before, or it could be after, but most important is getting the question passed."
The bill also does not specify where the new casinos would go. The most frequently mentioned locations are at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, where operator Jeffrey Gural has offered to pay a 55 percent tax rate, and in Jersey City, where footwear magnate Paul Fireman has proposed a casino resort costing $4 billion to $5 billion. The bill says the casinos must be in two counties and must be at least 72 miles from Atlantic City. That would eliminate racetracks in Oceanport and Freehold but leave Middlesex County towns including Edison, Sayreville and Woodbridge in the running.
The bill would split tax revenue from the new casinos between Atlantic City, to compensate for the expected additional loss of business to in-state competition, and tax relief and programs for senior citizens and the disabled statewide. Two percent would go to the casinos' host communities and 2 percent to the state's horse racing industry. A lobbyist for Freehold Raceway said Monday that the track opposes the current bill because it doesn't specify how much the horse industry will actually get.
Amendments have shortened the time that existing Atlantic City casino operators have to apply for one of the two new licenses from the initial 180 days to just 60 days. After that, any company from anywhere would be free to apply. Another amendment set a minimum $1 billion investment in each new casino.
After a 20-day waiting period, the bill needs to be approved by a three-fifths majority of both houses to appear on the ballot.
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