Negotiations between Senate and Assembly Democrats this weekend have set the stage for the opening of at least two casinos in Northern New Jersey if a possible November referendum question is approved by voters. Under the leadership of Democratic state Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36), it seems that Atlantic City is poised to lose it’s current position as the only municipality in the state where casino gambling is permitted.
As part of the negotiations for the North Jersey casinos, the ballot question will not feature any specific geographic location, according to Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37). If passed, developers will then be able to submit proposals and decide the locations for the casinos. Though no geographic location is expected in the referendum question, it seems that Jersey City and the Meadowlands in southern Bergen County are the likely locations for development.
According to several lawmakers in Bergen County, the area—particularly the Meadowlands—is poised for the development and would be able to quell the flow of money that was previously generated in Atlantic City to newer casinos in New York and Pennsylvania.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) thinks that building casinos in the North will help the state as a whole.
“We are giving away hotel, restaurant and entertainment dollars to our neighbors,” Huttle said. “Quite frankly, we have less money in the casino revenue fund to spend on programs we are supposed to be using those funds for like senior citizens and those with developmental disabilities. I think at the same time, if you look at our infrastructure problems, it could also help alleviate some of the revenue by refilling the Transportation Trust Fund.”
According to Huttle, the eventual referendum question can in no way position North Jersey against Atlantic City at the risk of losing voter support.
“If we use the strategy of not pitting North Jersey against Atlantic City and present what we are doing as an economic engine for the entire state, I think that the facts will speak for themselves and it will help motivate residents to vote in favor of it,” Huttle said. “If we start talking about where the money could be invested—if it is going to be invested in human services or in our seniors or in transportation—I think the voters would be more inclined to support something like that.”
According to Republican Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-39), however, if the casinos were built, North Jersey needs to see a significant portion of the funds generated in order to remedy the “unbelievable disparity” that she says exists between how much Bergen gives to the state versus the return on investment.
“Bergen County currently funds over 30 percent of the state budget but we only receive back less than three percent of that money which has resulted to a lot of programs being cut in Bergen and the exorbitant property tax,” Schepisi said. “We receive virtually no money with respect to municipal aid or school aid. So, in the event that we are allowing casinos in Northern Jersey to just further supplement the rest of the state and not help our residents, I would be against it. If it is something where our residents will receive a fair share of the revenue then I would absolutely support it.”
According to Weinberg, however, one of the main factors that needs to be considered when looking at the referendum question is how North Jersey casinos will not just help those in North Jersey.
“I would hope that voters in New Jersey would support the question,” she said. “I know it will be helpful to Atlantic City because some of the profits raised in the area would be redirected there. I think it is a win/win situation for both areas of the state.”
State Senator Bob Gordon (D-38) also believes that casinos in Bergen would be a benefit to the entire state because it will keep funds from leaving New Jersey.
“I do think that it is important that North jersey have an opportunity to capture the gambling dollars that at the current time are flowing out of the state,” he said. “This can also provide a flow of revenue into Atlantic City.”
Negotiations are ongoing that will determine how much revenue from North Jersey casinos would make its way to South Jersey and Atlantic City. Once the negotiations have been made, the amendment needs to be passed by both the senate and the assembly in order to make it onto November’s ballot question.