Christie, N.J. Democrats Agree on Plan for Casino Ballot Measure

  • Senate, Assembly leaders had disagreed over Atlantic City aid
  • Backers see ending Atlantic City monopoly as new pot of money

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a two-term Republican running for president, said he and Democratic legislative leaders reached agreement on a plan to get a casino expansion proposal on this November’s ballot.

Leaders of the Senate and Assembly had been deadlocked over competing measures to allow casinos beyond Atlantic City. They had disagreed on who could own the gambling halls and how much tax revenue would flow back to the struggling seaside resort.

Christie, who has been on the road campaigning, came home ahead of his State of the State speech on Tuesday. He said he met with Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto Sunday night to hash out the details of one proposal they all could agree on.

The governor, who has portrayed himself nationally as having a record of bipartisanship, said at a press conference Monday that the agreement was reached with a “great deal of compromise.”

“The most important thing in my view was to bring resolution to this issue and to give voters their opportunity this November when there will presumably be a large turnout in New Jersey -- as there will be across the country -- for the presidential election,” Christie said.

Lawmakers had hoped to pass one measure this session, setting up a second vote requiring a simple majority in the next. Without consensus in both houses by Monday, the final day of the legislative session, lawmakers will need to approve their compromise with a three-fifths majority -- 24 votes in the Senate and 48 in the Assembly -- to get it on the November 2016 ballot.

Earlier Monday, the Senate approved a casino ballot measure with 33 yes votes. Leaders plan to re-introduce a resolution tomorrow that adds a stipulation that any new casino involve a $1 billion investment, Christie said. The compromise also would give existing casino operators “right of first refusal” over the new licenses, Prieto said.

Getting a three-fifths vote in the Assembly “won’t be an easy lift, but that’s the reality,” Prieto said.

The casino expansion, which would require an amendment to the state constitution, was designed to protect a state revenue stream that has withered in recent years as gamblers flock to casinos in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Christie, 53, has struggled to revive the coastal community of almost 40,000 people, about one-third of whom live in poverty. After years of refusing to consider a northern expansion, he said last year he would be open to the idea if some of the new revenue went to Atlantic City. Even so, constitutional amendments don’t need the governor’s approval.

While Christie acknowledged that he plays no direct role in ballot questions, he said enabling legislation may reach his desk. He said he got involved because resolution was important for the state’s economy.

“I’m pleased after a lot of effort and a lot of conversation among the three of us that we can announce that we have an agreement,” Christie said in a rare appearance before reporters in Trenton.

A 1976 law gave Atlantic City a monopoly on gambling in New Jersey. The restriction helped turn the tourist spot near the state’s southern end into the top U.S. East Coast gambling destination, until competition in neighboring states led to seven-straight years of declining revenue.

Democrats, who control both legislative houses, agreed that allowing gambling in other towns was crucial to reclaim revenue that has left New Jersey.

Details of the measure, though, pitted lawmakers in the northern part of the state, where the new casinos would be located, against those in the southern half, which includes Atlantic City.

Both proposals would authorize two casinos at least 72 miles (116 kilometers) from Atlantic City -- making the state’s northern section near New York City the most probable site.

Sweeney, of West Deptford in the south, wanted only current holders of an Atlantic City casino license, or partnerships majority-owned by existing operators, to be eligible for the new businesses. Prieto, of Secaucus in the north, sought to set aside just one of the two licenses for an existing holder.

The two lawmakers also disagree over how much of revenue to send to Atlantic City, and for how long.

On Friday, Christie called on lawmakers to approve Sweeney’s measure. 

“Inaction should not be an option,” Christie said in a statement. “Delay puts the expansion of gaming in peril. That is not in the interests of anyone in New Jersey, North or South.”