As Gov. Chris Christie considers whether to sign into law two major bills aimed at revitalizing Atlantic City, political observers wonder whether he is planning a veto maneuver that could withhold millions meant to help the state's horse-racing industry.
Some observers have taken to calling it a "not now but later" veto option.
Christie saw his vision for casino deregulation and a Tourism District in Atlantic City passed by lawmakers a week ago. One of the Democrats' demands, that casinos continue to finanically help New Jersey racetracks, stayed in the final bills. A three-year subsidy coming from an estimated $30 million in casino regulatory savings will be used to fund horse-race winners' purses. The casino-deregulation bill calls for $15 million to be allocated to horse-racing the first year.
Christie has pledged repeatedly to end racing subsidies altogether.
Months of hard bargaining between Christie and majority-party Democrats on the legislation had not changed the governor's stance, and on Dec. 17, he said he would see "the end" of financial handouts from casinos to horse-racing purses. But both sides ended the discussion Monday by agreeing to give control of the subsidy allocation to the New Jersey Racing Commission.
As governor, Christie could strike out the language with a conditional veto of the bill and send it back to the Legislature to be voted on again. But lawmakers believe he may try something different: He may sign the bill with the subsidy intact, then use his executive control over the Racing Commission to effectively stop the subsidy from ever being issued.
"It's as if he shifts his use of veto power to the back end of the process," said Frank Corrado, an attorney based in Wildwood who specializes in constitutional law. "That gives him more flexibility."
Tom Luchento, head of the New Jersey Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association, said he has considered the possibility that Christie would use his veto "not now, but later." But he found it hard to believe.
"Do you think he'd be that devious?" Luchento asked Thursday. "I think he understands what a loss it would be if our industry can't survive. I think if he gives the money to us, he'll do it wholeheartedly."
Christie has the power to overturn the actions of state agencies, including the Racing Commission, by vetoing their meeting minutes. He has shown he will not hesitate to wield executive veto power, using it 15 times over the state's authorities and commissions since taking office last January. Recent examples include vetoing actions by the state Higher Education Student Assistance Authority and the Delaware River Port Authority.
He also recently vetoed the Racing Commission's minutes as a formal way of suspending horse-racing dates pending all these changes.
The Governor's Office did not return calls for comment Thursday or Friday on whether or when Christie would sign the legislation into law, or whether he was considering a veto.
Former state Sen. Bill Gormley, a Republican from Atlantic County, said the governor has shown he will use the extent of his executive clout to stick up for the resort.
"What's important in my mind is that the governor accepted the recommendations of (gaming study commissioners) Jon Hanson and Finn Wentworth, and is choosing to expend his personal capital to attract financial capital here," Gormley said.
Democrats from northern and southern New Jersey reacted differently to the possible action by the governor.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, sought to downplay the prospect of Christie vetoing the Racing Commission's action, and applauded the compromise that gave the commission the job of administering and issuing the subsidies.
"I think it's a good place for it," he said.
But Democratic colleagues from northern districts, who had tied provisions for horse racing's survival to the critical Atlantic City legislation, warned that such a veto maneuver would anger them.
"It would be a tragedy and would send us back to square one," said Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, who helped craft a series of bills that connected casino revitalization with horse racing's financial security. "The Legislature, Democrats and Republicans, spoke loud and clear on behalf of saving both our casinos and horse-racing industry."
Should the law creating the Tourism District be enacted, Christie's decision on executive veto action could come soon.
Luchento said standardbred horsemen would need to know the size of winners' purses in time to advertise them for the coming race season.
"I'd be getting ready to petition very soon," Luchento said.
The actual allocation of the subsidy between the state and private tracks would be decided by the Racing Commission's members, all of whom are appointed by the governor.
"So they could decide the amount," Luchento said. "Anywhere from zero up. But obviously, we'd hope they'd give us the maximum. "
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