State legislators took another step toward allowing sports wagers Monday, approving a bill that would allow the state Casino Control Commission to issue licenses to casinos and racetracks to accept bets on some professional and collegiate events.
The bill now goes to Gov. Chris Christie for his signature; the governor has indicated he will sign the measure.
But don't expect to be able to legally put down a crisp $20 on the Super Bowl anytime soon - the proposal remains tied up in the courts due to a federal ban in all but four states.
The bill legislators approved sets up the initial regulatory groundwork for sports wagers in New Jersey and follows voters' November approval of amending the state constitution to allow a sports book. The approval was by a more than 2-1 margin.
The bill would allow horse tracks and casinos and their partners the opportunity to offer sports betting. A proposal to offer the wagers over the Internet was killed in December.
Tony Rodio, president and chief executive officer of Tropicana Casino and Resort, predicted that sports betting would be "a tremendous boost" for Atlantic City by adding another attraction for gaming customers. Rodio pointed to the big crowds that turn out at the Las Vegas casinos to wager on the Super Bowl and other major sports events as an example of how Atlantic City could benefit.
"There is such an influx of people into Las Vegas with those high-profile sports-betting events," he said.
The Casino Association of New Jersey, a trade group representing Atlantic City's gaming industry, called the legislation "an important first step" in efforts to legalize sports betting.
"If and when the federal ban is overturned, this law would permit casinos to accept wagers on sporting events, adding another amenity to enhance our ability to compete and grow as a destination resort," Bob Griffin, the association's president, said in a statement. "Legalized sports betting would provide an economic boost for Atlantic City and the entire state of New Jersey as it would attract more tourists to our city and its world-class entertainment, thriving restaurants, brand-name retail shopping and famous Boardwalk."
Only four states - Delaware, Nevada, Montana and Oregon - now have the ability to offer wagers on sports other than horse racing and jai alai under federal law. New Jersey had the chance in 1993 after federal lawmakers made an exemption for Atlantic City in the federal ban, but the state Legislature did not pass the proposal and the window closed.
State officials have since sued to overturn the ban, arguing the law illegally limits sports book to those four states.
"You have to be realistic," state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said after the bill cleared the state Senate. "It's not going to have the impact that it would have had had we been able to get it passed 20 years ago when it was first proposed."
He said he believed that if the federal courts found the law unconstitutional, then it would open the door to sports betting in all 50 states. This proposal gets New Jersey ready for that possibility.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who sponsored an earlier version of the bill in the Assembly, said sports wagering has the potential to transform Atlantic City's casinos and New Jersey's horse tracks, and would make the state the premier East Coast gaming destination.
A news release from state Senate Democrats cited figures from Club CalNeva, a Las Vegas-based company that operated more than 30 sports books, in estimating that the new measure could bring $1.3 billion in sports wagering gross revenues and $120 million in tax revenue to the Garden State
Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said "now to finally see it get closer to the finish line, after about a decade, is a good feeling."
The legislation was approved 35-2 in the Senate and passed 73-0 in the Assembly.
Staff Writer Caitlin Dineen contributed to this report.
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