If Gov. Chris Christie doesn’t sign legislation legalizing Internet gambling in New Jersey, lawmakers may consider putting the measure on a referendum but not without tremendous risk, a state senator said.
“A referendum is very, very dangerous,” Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, said Tuesday.
While passing the referendum would authorize Internet gambling without approval from the governor by amending the state’s constitution, a defeat would have consequences, including prohibiting Internet gambling in the state, he said.
“It could preclude New Jersey from having Internet gaming even if the federal government allows it,” Lesniak said.
New Jersey’s constitution prohibits a defeated referendum from being resubmitted to another vote for another two years.
Lesniak made the remarks during an Internet gambling symposium at Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City on Tuesday.
Christie has until Thursday to act on the bill before it automatically is enacted into law. The governor has vetoed a similar measure in the past, and a few weeks ago he expressed reservations about the bill. He said he was unconvinced Internet gambling would help Atlantic City and was concerned it would promote compulsive gambling at home.
That image of workers losing their paycheck by gambling at home in solitude is a powerful one that makes Internet gambling less socially acceptable than other activities, such as sports betting, Lesniak said.
“It’s not like sports betting,” Lesniak said about Internet gambling. “People have a visceral reaction to the guy in the bathrobe gambling.”
A Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind poll published in December showed that 51 percent of those polled nationally supported legalizing sports betting, but only 27 percent backed Internet gambling.
The senator said the governor also may conditionally veto the bill and only allow for online poker rather than all games, as the original legislation intended. That outcome would be more welcomed than a veto, Lesniak said.
Many groups and organizations in Atlantic City have expressed support for the bill, including the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, which issued a statement Tuesday calling on the governor to sign the legislation, saying it would make the city a leading hub for Internet gambling.
Officials from at least one Atlantic City casino have been lobbying Christie and other officials to legalize Internet gambling, arguing the measure will save jobs and infuse millions into the industry. Atlantic Club Casino Hotel is being sold to Rational Group, parent company of PokerStars, one of the largest Internet gambling companies in the world.
Lesniak said one of the original versions of the Internet gambling bill would have prevented PokerStars and other offshore companies from entering the Atlantic City market at the request of lobbyists representing Caesars Entertainment. But the bill was later revised to allow offshore companies to apply as long as regulators investigated and approved the applications.
“They tried to absolutely bar them,” he said of Caesars and PokerStars. “We reached a compromise.”
Caesars officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd Levenson Institute at Richard Stockton College, attended the symposium. He asked Lesniak about the possibility of casinos at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford.
“The time will come — I believe soon — where we will, as a state, allow a casino at the Meadowlands operated by a casino in Atlantic City,” Lesniak said. “The interesting thing is it becomes even more imperative if the governor vetoes the bill.”
By allowing Atlantic City casinos to partner with operators of the Meadowlands, money that is being gambled in casinos in New York will be retained in New Jersey while also bringing investment dollars to Atlantic City, the senator said.
“A casino at the Meadowlands, unlike what Donald Trump will tell you, is not going to hurt Atlantic City if they are able to recoup ‘X’ amount,” Lesniak said.
Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem, have said they want to give Atlantic City several years of exclusivity before allowing for the expansion of gambling to other municipalities in the state.
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