Source: Senate and Assembly Compromise on Gaming Expansion to Come by Friday

As Democrats hash out casino bills, sources point to 2017 and special interests as the real deciding factors.

Senate President Sweeney
Senate President Sweeney
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.
Assembly Speaker Prieto

A source close to the Assembly Democrats told PolitickerNJ that a compromise between competing proposals to allow new casinos in North Jersey should arrive by the end of this week. The two bills will be going to committee Thursday. The conflict between Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-3) proposal and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto’s (D-32) stems from Atlantic City’s share of the proceeds, with Sweeney’s offering a greater portion of the new casinos’ revenues to the ailing gaming capitol.

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The compromise would come at a time when the question of new North Jersey casinos has become inextricable from proponents and critics’ ambitions in 2017. Though the ballot question that would finally determine the outcome could come as early as next fall, it is more likely to go to voters as Sweeney mounts a rumored gubernatorial campaign against likely opponents Phil Murphy and Steve Fulop.

Sweeney is aiming to appeal to North Jersey’s power players and public as the candidate that helped accomplish gaming expansion, all while keeping his South Jersey constituency happy. Compromising in the end will help him gain leverage with the North, while putting up a fight will help him preempt attacks from gubernatorial rivals and make it harder for Murphy or Fulop to accuse him of prioritizing his own political career over the economic state of South Jersey.

Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said that the interests backing potential new casinos in Jersey City and the Meadowlands will be crucial for Sweeney going into the gubernatorial primaries.

“I think that at this point he’ll do whatever he can to build those bridges, particularly in light of the seemingly growing relationship that Fulop has with some of the North Jersey bosses,” said Harrison. “This compromise in some ways will make it more readily apparent that the special interests are going to be playing a really significant role.”

Sweeney’s bill, which he sponsored with Bergen Democrats Paul Sarlo (D-36), Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Robert Gordon (D-38), would divert 49% of new profits to Atlantic City and its recovery for 15 years, with 3% annual decreases after that. Prieto’s, which nine other North Jersey Democrats con-sponsored, would give 36% of profits to Atlantic City over 15 years with 1.5% decreases. Prieto’s would then set Atlantic City’s share at 20%.

Though the Assembly bill would offer that indefinite financial life support, Harrison said it may be wise for Atlantic City to take the money and run.

“I am skeptical of the long-term net,” she said of the new casinos’ projections. “There is that kind of flash in the pan interest, and then profits steadily decline. So in my view it’s in Southern New Jersey’s interest to take the larger payment up front.”

Another source close to the Atlantic City Republicans echoed Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2), who said Monday that the Sweeney bill’s unusual path to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee should raise eyebrows. Bergen Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36) chairs the committee. Gaming bills normally go to the State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee, chaired by Senator and former Atlantic City Mayor Jim Whelan (D-2).

Pointing to the choice of committee and the bills’ mutual evasiveness on exact locations, the source said that the outcome would depend on who has been promised what, and on who can afford to break their promises to developers and casino backers. The bills both specify that new casinos must be in two separate counties no less than 75 miles away from Atlantic City.

“You know a hoodwink is coming,” the source said.

Source: Senate and Assembly Compromise on Gaming Expansion to Come by Friday