Aerial Atlantic City Skyline

Aerial view of Atlantic City skyline, Sunday Aug. 3, 2014. The city's eight casinos posted a 5.5 percent gain in revenue in June.

ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic City’s struggling casino industry could face in-state competition from not one, not two, but three North Jersey casinos under legislation that was introduced Monday.

South Jersey lawmakers vowed to fight the proposal, characterizing it as a David-versus-Goliath struggle between pro-Atlantic City forces and the powerful North Jersey political machine.

The legislation would ask voters to approve a ballot referendum authorizing up to three casinos in Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties. Voters would need to amend the state constitution to expand casino gambling outside Atlantic City.

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Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, a prime sponsor of the legislation, said the Meadowlands racetrack would likely be the preferred casino site in Bergen County, while Jersey City would probably be the location in Hudson. A host city would have to be determined for a casino in Essex County, he said.

Caputo wants the referendum put on the November election ballot, but said it will be up to Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto to decide on the timing. The bill would have to be approved by the Legislature by Aug. 3 to make it onto the November ballot.

“I prefer to have it now,” Caputo told The Press of Atlantic City about including the referendum on the November ballot.

Debated for years, the topic of North Jersey casinos has pitted North Jersey lawmakers against Atlantic City supporters. The issue jumped to the political forefront last Wednesday when Gov. Chris Christie said he would be in favor of allowing casinos in North Jersey if some of the revenue is used to aid Atlantic City.

Up to this point, most of the discussion has focused on the possibility of a casino at the Meadowlands racetrack. However, venture capitalist Paul Fireman has proposed building a $4.6 billion gaming and entertainment megaresort overlooking the Hudson River in Jersey City. Caputo and other North Jersey pro-gambling forces are upping the ante by also proposing Essex County as a third casino site.

South Jersey lawmakers argue that North Jersey casinos would cannibalize the Atlantic City market, which saw four casinos close last year and has suffered eight straight years of revenue declines amid intense competition from gambling markets in neighboring states. They promised to fight attempts to end Atlantic City’s 37-year monopoly on casino gambling in New Jersey.

“I will not support any attempt to amend our constitution to open casinos in the Meadowlands or Jersey City or anywhere outside Atlantic City, and I will definitely work against having such a question rushed through to beat a ballot deadline,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic.

Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, characterized the battle over casino gambling as a titanic struggle between South Jersey and the more heavily populated and politically powerful northern counties.

“I believe in the people of Atlantic County, and will continue fighting North Jersey casino special interests and political bosses for our future and the future of our children and grandchildren. Remember, through faith and determination, David beat Goliath,” Brown said.

Caputo, though, maintained that North Jersey casinos would be a way to retain North Jersey customers who are already going to nearby casinos in Pennsylvania and New York. He said Atlantic City has already “lost that base.”

“We cannot sit idle any longer,” Caputo said. “We can’t bury our head in the sand anymore, because one day we’re going to look up and our gaming dollars will have flocked away to other states. This is not about taking business away from Atlantic City. This is about New Jersey missing out on the available markets in northern New Jersey and the surrounding region.”

Caputo, chairman of the Assembly Tourism, Gaming and Arts Committee, said his proposal would aid Atlantic City by using hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue generated by North Jersey casinos to help revitalize the resort. In addition, out-of-work Atlantic City casino employees would receive preference for jobs at the North Jersey casinos.

“We’re going to tie the economic benefits together,” Caputo said.

Exactly how much Atlantic City would receive and other key financial details for North Jersey casinos, including the tax rate they would pay, would have to be hammered out in follow-up legislation.

Jeff Gural, the operator of the Meadowlands racetrack, has estimated a casino there would generate $500 million in annual tax revenue, with $200 million or $300 million going to help Atlantic City. Caputo also estimated that $200 million or $300 million in tax revenue could go to support Atlantic City.

“It would be huge,” he said.

Mazzeo and Brown issued separate statements condemning the legislation, but voiced similar comments about their belief that North Jersey casinos would cause further harm to South Jersey’s fragile economy.

“It’s disruptive to talk about casinos in North Jersey while South Jersey families are still reeling from having their jobs, health care and stability taken away, and while Atlantic County, Atlantic City and our schools are still feeling the hit,” Mazzeo said.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258

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