New Jersey Slow To Respond To New York City Casinos

January 30, 2023
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The process of bidding for three casino licenses in the New York City area is moving forward, but the same cannot be said for a potential counteroffensive on the west side of the Hudson River in northern New Jersey.

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The process of bidding for three casino licenses in the New York City area is moving forward, but the same cannot be said for a potential counteroffensive on the west side of the Hudson River in northern New Jersey.

Several New Jersey politicians and analysts told VIXIO GamblingCompliance that even as proposals for casinos in midtown Manhattan emerge, there has been little to no discussion of seeking to hand a state-wide ballot question on casino expansion to voters later this year.

"If anyone was going to be talking about it, it would be me," said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a Democrat who spent most of his professional life as an Atlantic City casino executive between stints in the legislature from 1968-1972 and since 2008.

"And I don't see anything happening right now. Maybe sometime in late March, the beginning of the spring. We'll see."

Caputo would need to corral three-fifths majorities in both the state's Senate and Assembly by the end of the state fiscal year on June 30 in order for the issue to go before voters.

Before that, specific language palatable to that number of lawmakers would have to be crafted to overcome inevitable South Jersey legislative opposition, based on fears of harming the Atlantic City gaming industry.

Caputo said the complexities of the industry are such that it can be difficult for lawmakers who do not have his work experience to appreciate the advantages of bringing a casino to North Jersey.

"I know all about the marketing, and what a great investment we could have in the area," Caputo said. "We absolutely have to compete with New York."

Dennis Drazin, who operates Monmouth Park for the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, has been a consistent advocate of having the state allow table games at the venerable Jersey Shore racetrack.

"I think eventually there will be a referendum — I'm just not sure about this year," Drazin said.

The action and inaction of the two bordering states are a sharp contrast to modern history in terms of sports and gambling issues. New Jersey in 1977 became the second state to legalize casino gambling — more than 35 years before New York did the same.

New Jersey was the pioneer in the launch of a competitive marketplace for online casino operators in 2013, while New York has yet to follow suit.

Sports betting, including online, came to New Jersey in 2018 after the Supreme Court overturned the federal ban, while New York failed to add that sort of sports betting until early 2022.

But with New York gaming regulators expected to approve three casino licenses in the city's five boroughs, Caputo said that even achieving his goal of having a casino in the Meadowlands would merely serve as "a defensive move" to keep the state's residents from straying into New York to gamble.

Genting's Resorts World at Aqueduct Racetrack, which already features thousands of slot machine-like video lottery terminals (VLTs), is considered a heavy favorite to land a license because local residents are used to gambling at the site.

But neither Aqueduct nor New York Mets owner Steve Cohen's proposal for a different casino site in Queens would likely lure an extensive number of New Jerseyans to those sites. The same goes for potential bids in Brooklyn or on Long Island.

More problematic for New Jersey would be the expected awarding of a casino license to Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway which, like Aqueduct, already has horseracing and VLTs.

The casino, operated by MGM Resorts International, is only about 10 miles from Fort Lee, New Jersey. Track officials began daily roundtrip bus runs from North Jersey not long after its Empire City Casino opened in 2006.

If a proposal to bring a casino to Times Square were to succeed, many commuters from New Jersey suburbs into Manhattan might be tempted to stop and gamble before returning home.

Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural has said repeatedly, however, that considerable local community opposition to casinos in Manhattan means that "anyone trying for that is just wasting their time, in my opinion."

Gural led what proved to be a disastrous effort to gain voter approval for two casinos in the northern part of the state in November 2016. Groups opposed to the referendum, including rival casino interests, spent a state-record $14m to defeat the proposal.

That clearly discouraged long-time Meadowlands-area state Senator Paul Sarlo, an advocate for the expansion of gambling in New Jersey. Sarlo said in late 2020 that he does not expect a revival of a Meadowlands casino proposal "in the next four years."

Still, at least one advocate for expanding casino gambling beyond Atlantic City remains bullish on the idea.

"Time is of the essence for New Jersey to take action immediately to put a referendum on the ballot this year," said William Pascrell III, an attorney and lobbyist with Princeton Public Affairs Group, while adding that Atlantic City's interests also need to be considered.

"There's plenty of time, and I'm not throwing in the towel," Pascrell added.

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