Today, we face a great crossroads for the economic future of our state. For weeks, much has been discussed and written about the proposed expansion plans for casino gaming outside of Atlantic City. It seems quite simple. We have a unique opportunity to work together and expand the New Jersey gaming market in a way that would both, create massive economic development in North Jersey and South Jersey including the much needed revitalization of Atlantic City. The simplicity of a win-win scenario may make logical sense, but political calculations have resulted in mysterious and unspoken opposition.
Never would I imagine that I would be leading the fight to convince North Jersey politicians to support the building of casino gaming facilities in their own backyard. That is exactly what I stand here trying to do in the final days of the 216th legislature.
Let me take a moment to remind you of how we arrived at this point.
In July of 2014, I wrote an op-ed outlining my vision for new casinos in New Jersey. Not one legislator raised an objection. The parameters were simple. First, protect Atlantic City and minimize the cannibalization of profits between gambling regions. Second, invest in a new vision for Atlantic City that will create a premiere gaming tourist destination reinvigorating the region. Third, some of the best casino gaming operators in the world have invested billions in Atlantic City and they deserve the first opportunity to operate a casino in North Jersey. Finally, jobless Atlantic City casino workers should be given the first opportunity to work at a North Jersey casino.
In recent days, I have engaged in intense negotiations with leadership in the New Jersey Assembly eager to see the development of two casinos in their part of the state. Even though there is significant risk of further casino closures in Atlantic City and the loss of more jobs, it is in the best interest of the state to build casinos in North Jersey to bring back gamblers who have sought out gaming opportunities in the Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York.
I’ve been willing to compromise because as a state the stakes are too high to be unyielding for our collective economic future. Originally, I supported only 1 new casino gaming venue in North Jersey. Today, I have compromised and agreed to 2 new casino gaming venues in North Jersey. And, I cannot be clearer that any more than 2 venues will absolutely destroy Atlantic City.
Requiring current casino operators to have the first chance at running the new casinos is the right move for the state. Firms that know our regulatory system and its economic environment will more quickly build better operating casinos.
Additionally, casinos that share ownership have a collective motivation in uniting for self-survival. The shared ownership model I have proposed unites the state’s gaming interests. We are fortunate to have some of the best casino gaming operators in the world and the continuity of ownership will put us on a path to success. The notion that we are looking to exclude competition couldn’t be further from the truth.
As part of recent amendments to the resolution, I have included provisions that would allow for outside investment up to 49 percent to augment the team and by encouraging additional investment we will ensure the success of all New Jersey’s casino gaming venues.
The alternative ownership model is quite concerning because we must learn from the past experience that bad actors could wreak havoc on our economy. We have seen some former operators flat out abandon Atlantic City and others would bring non-union operations that would harm our state. As an ironworker, I will stand opposed to provisions that undermine the hard working men and women throughout New Jersey. And, I will not allow a deal with an operator that would siphon profits in our state only to abandon their responsibility over the long haul.
So much is at stake. The casino tax revenue generated helps fund vital state programs for senior citizens and the disabled. It is critical that this is a success. Residents in every corner of the state are counting on us.
Further, my plan has the strong support of the building trades unions because we will create thousands of much needed construction jobs that will put New Jersey tradesman to work and create permanent jobs for their neighbors across our state.
In terms of Atlantic City, they are facing very challenging economic times that range far beyond a struggling casino industry. Currently, Atlantic County has the highest foreclosure rates in the nation and governmental failure has worsened a difficult predicament. As a result, Atlantic City must be recast as a premiere tourist destination with casino gaming to jumpstart their economic future. As part of that, they would lose the exclusive gaming rights. It is reasonable for a new investment to help revitalize the region so both, economic regions north and south, don’t just survive, but thrive as we chart a new course.
Senator Sarlo recently summed it up well comparing the billions of dollars invested by operators in Atlantic City worthy of a shared owner model because they bought into an exclusive franchise much like the NFL. That means compensating for the new shared marketplace – this must happen. This is about fairness and allowing New Jersey to compete regionally rather than with each other saturating our own marketplace.
I’ve been quite clear at where I stand and have sought common ground to close a deal that will benefit the state. Unfortunately, every concession has been met with attempts to further move the goal post. I’ve spent a lifetime sitting across the negotiating table and I know when someone is not acting in good faith.
We have reached a critical juncture with time running out of the legislative session and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto needs to face the realities of the situation at hand.
I have the support to pass my constitutional resolution in the senate and am quite proud that the resolution will pass with broad based support from North, Central and South Jersey lawmakers. On Monday, the resolution will be approved and sent to the assembly for consideration.
Speaker Prieto’s resolution does not have the support to pass the Assembly.
Because he doesn’t have the votes to pass his casino gaming plan, I ask the Speaker to commit to putting up for a vote on Monday, the approved Senate version sponsored by Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo and Joseph Egan in the General Assembly.
It would be reckless, irresponsible and will set our State’s economy backwards if Speaker Prieto pocket vetoes the economic future of New Jersey on Monday.
What does failure on Monday mean? We would then need a super majority of 60% in each house to get a constitutional question on the ballot in 2016. With the current opposition it is highly unlikely that any measure would move forward and the neighboring markets will capitalize on this moment.
Politics must take a backseat, the clock is ticking. It’s time for all of us to get the job done before the clock strikes midnight on all of us.
Stephen N. Sweeney is President of the New Jersey State Senate.