NJ Lawmakers Question Commission Report

New Jersey lawmakers are seeking more answers on racing and gaming in the state.

New Jersey lawmakers questioned the research behind a report on gaming and racing in the state Sept. 29 and suggested it left too many unanswered questions, particularly in regard to options for the horse racing industry.

The third legislative “summit” meeting, held at Monmouth Park in central New Jersey, was highlighted by comments from Jon Hanson, who chaired the committee that wrote the report upon the order of Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Members of the state General Assembly peppered Hanson with questions and again reiterated their own positions on the issues.

The report basically calls for the state to get out of the racing business—or at least stop propping it up financially. It dismisses having a casino at Meadowlands in North Jersey and the impact of “convenience gambling” in neighboring states.

Democratic Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, whose district lies in North Jersey, acknowledged the need for quick action to assist the racing and gaming industries but said the report doesn’t go far enough.

“Convenience gambling is murdering the racetracks and Atlantic City (casinos),” Caputo said. “We’re not dealing with immediate realities. I don’t want to promote gambling in northern New Jersey, but if we don’t put a racino at Meadowlands, we could lose both industries.

“What we have to do is look at financial data and see how much impact this competition is having on us.”

The numbers aren’t part of the report nor are financial projections related to a build-out of off-track wagering parlors around the state. (Only three of 15 have been opened thus far.) The report says an expanded OTW network is one way horse racing can raise revenue from within.

Though the report calls for converting the harness paddock at Meadowlands into an OTW facility, Hanson during the Sept. 29 hearing said it would be hard for anyone to invest $15 million to $20 million to build facilities when no one knows whether they will be profitable or even in use in 10 years.

Democratic Sen. Paul Sarlo of North Jersey asked Hanson if the commission did a formal study of off-track wagering and its potential for New Jersey.

“This is the conclusion of the commission,” Hanson said. “I didn’t handle that aspect of it.”

Sarlo, who supports casino gambling on the sprawling Meadowlands property, asked why the report doesn’t detail how the property should be used and why it advocates an end to racing there. He also asked Hanson if the topic of building houses on the property came up in commission discussions.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” said Hanson, a developer. “I think it’s the finest piece of real estate in northern New Jersey.”

Sarlo then pushed Hanson on gaming at Meadowlands, asking for clarification on whether the report recommends no gaming at Meadowlands just for now or also in the future.

“Our report says that at the present time we’re not considering casinos,” Hanson said. “Our report says what our report says.”

Some legislators advocate a model whereby the Atlantic City casino industry would benefit from revenue at a Meadowlands casino, as would horse racing in the state. The state would get a sizable chunk of the funds.

Democratic Assemblywoman Connie Wagner requested from Hanson details on how many people with ties to the horse industry were interviewed before the commission issued its report. She also said it appears central New Jersey—home to many horse farms—wasn’t considered in the report.

“I’ve visited many of these farms, and if the Meadowlands doesn’t succeed, it’s going to have a domino effect, and it won’t be pretty,” Wagner said. “This is a beautiful part of our state. Was it even considered?”

“(The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority) is out of money,” Hanson said. “It’s not the role of the state to subsidize but to work with the private sector.”

State lawmakers are putting together a legislative package designed to assist the racing and gaming industries. Among the options are Internet gaming and exchange wagering.