New Jersey voters to decide on new casinos in November

Wayne Parry / AP

This April 17, 2015, file photo shows stacks of gambling chips on a roulette table at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City. New Jersey voters are about to get their say on whether to expand casino gambling to the northern part of the state.

TRENTON, N.J. — Voters will be asked in November whether to approve two new casinos in the northern part of the state under a ballot question authorized Monday by the Legislature.

It will mark the first time in 40 years that the state's voters will have a say about expanding casino gambling in New Jersey. And it could have far-reaching consequences for Atlantic City, which has already lost more than half its casino revenue to competitors in neighboring states.

On a packed general election ballot that also will include presidential candidates, voters will be asked whether to amend the state constitution to repeal a provision that limits casinos only to Atlantic City. It would authorize two new casinos in separate counties at least 72 miles from Atlantic City.

It doesn't specify locations, but the two most-talked-about proposals are in the Meadowlands sports complex in East Rutherford, where the NFL's Jets and Giants play, and in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

"This is a very historic day for New Jersey," said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, an Essex County Democrat and former casino worker. "In 1976, casinos were approved for Atlantic City. It was a monopoly that existed for many, many years; many people benefited. But conditions change, and when conditions change and you don't adapt, you become a dinosaur and you become extinct."

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, predicted that three of his city's eight remaining casinos will close because of new in-state competition; other officials and Wall Street analysts say as many as four could go under because of the new competition.

"Look at my face," Guardian said. "This is the face of failed promises from the state of New Jersey to fix my city. There will be devastation."

Supporters say the new casinos will recapture gambling money that's now going to casinos in neighboring states and help rebuild Atlantic City.

Jeff Gural, operator of the Meadowlands Racetrack, has offered to pay a 55 percent tax on revenue at a casino he would build with Hard Rock International; Atlantic City's casinos now pay an 8 percent tax, plus an additional 1.25 percent in mandatory redevelopment contributions.

"This will provide the funds needed to rebuild Atlantic City into a first-class destination resort while at the same time provide several hundred million dollars for seniors and money to save the horse-racing industry," Gural told The Associated Press. "It will also create thousands of construction jobs and eventually thousands of permanent casino jobs and bring dollars currently being wagered in New York and Pennsylvania back to New Jersey."

The referendum is the result of a nearly decadelong decline in Atlantic City brought about by casinos opening in neighboring Pennsylvania in late 2006, and worsened by others in New York and Delaware.

In 2006, Atlantic City's casino revenue was $5.2 billion; last year it had fallen to $2.56 billion. In 2014, four of the city's 12 casinos went out of business.

The referendum sets up what it sure to be a hard-fought, expensive campaign to sway voters. Guardian said he will spend two or three days each week trying to convince voters in other parts of the state why expanding casinos to northern New Jersey is a bad idea. Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, an Atlantic County Democrat, pledged a similar effort against the referendum.

"We will take this fight to the voters of this state," he said. "It will not be quiet; it will not be cheap."

Casino companies are also expected to spend millions on ads for and against the proposal.