Atlantic City's monopoly on casino gambling, enshrined in law and fiercely protected by politicians for nearly 40 years, began to crumble June 1 as lawmakers introduced a bill that would let voters decide whether to allow three new casinos in northern New Jersey.
The bill would schedule a referendum in which voters would be asked to approve up to three casinos in Bergen, Essex, or Hudson counties, all of which are located near New York City. The state constitution limits casino gambling to Atlantic City, where the first gaming establishment opened in 1978.
It comes as efforts to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City rapidly gain momentum while Atlantic City's casino industry withers from ever-increasing competition in neighboring states. Atlantic City casinos fear competition within the state's own borders could decimate much of its remaining casino industry; four of the city's 12 casinos shut down last year.
Part of the tax revenue generated by the new casinos would be earmarked to help Atlantic City recover, but crucial details, including the tax rate they would pay and how much would go to Atlantic City, need to be worked out in subsequent legislation. On June 3, Hard Rock International and Meadowlands are expected to unveil their plans for a casino Bergen County track some analysts say could be among the most successful casinos in the nation.
The business has changed," said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a Democrat from Essex County. "To survive in anything, you have to adapt. If you don't adapt, you become extinct."
The bill would have to be approved by Aug. 3 to make it onto this November's general election ballot. Republican Gov. Chris Christie endorsed a referendum for this fall as long as part of the tax revenue from the new casinos would go to help Atlantic City.
In addition to the proposal for a casino at the Meadowlands, footwear magnate Paul Fireman has proposed a casino in Jersey City on the Hudson River waterfront, directly across from Manhattan. There also has been talk of a casino in Newark, the state's largest city.
Oceanport in Monmouth County, where Monmouth Park is located, would be excluded from consideration under the bill. There have been suggestions, however, that a percentage of revenue from a Meadowlands casino would go toward purses at New Jersey racetracks.
Meadowlands president Jeff Gural has volunteered to pay the same 55% tax rate Pennsylvania's casinos do and share part of it with Atlantic City. He has said two northern New Jersey casinos could provide Atlantic City with $2 billion worth of subsidies over 10 years.
Southern New Jersey politicians vehemently oppose expanding casinos beyond Atlantic City, where casinos pay an 8% tax rate.