internet gambling illustration
Vernon Ogrodnek

A bill to legalize Internet gambling in New Jersey was approved by the Assembly on Monday despite opposition from two dozen lawmakers.

The proposed legislation passed 48-24 with four abstentions. The Senate is scheduled to vote on it Thursday.

Advocates of the bill, who had predicted easy passage in the Assembly, said they were surprised at how many lawmakers voted against it.

“The only thing I can think of is the horse-racing subsidies were eliminated from the bill,” said Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

An earlier version of the measure had proposed as much as $30 million toward augmenting horse-racing industry purses, but that section was removed prior to the Assembly vote. Its removal may have cost votes from horse-racing industry supporters, Amodeo said.

With the bill clearing one house and expected to clear a second, advocates said they hope Gov. Chris Christie will sign the measure despite vetoing a similar bill last year and voicing concerns on a variation of the proposed legislation earlier this year. His office has declined to comment on the measure.

“He’s going to rest on this and probably wait a while to act on it,” Amodeo said of Christie. “Ultimately, I think it gives us time.”

Advocates said they believe they have addressed some of the governor’s misgivings, such as prohibiting businesses outside Atlantic City casinos from making their premises ava ilable for Internet wagering and advertising it as a use. Christie had said he was concerned about the proliferation of neighborhood gambling halls.

Under the bill, the equipment used in Internet gambling would reside in Atlantic City, although backup and certain other equipment could be located elsewhere.

One possible stumbling block is a provision allowing offshore companies to apply for an “Internet gaming affiliate” license and operate the gambling system on behalf of an Atlantic City casino. The bill directs regulators to consult with the U.S. Department of Justice prior to issuing a recommendation on licensure. Amodeo said Christie’s background as a former U.S. attorney will play a role in his read of that section.

“It’s a big step, and we have to be really cautious,” Amodeo said of the proposed legislation. “I think it’s good for the economy and right for Atlantic City.”

Some opponents of the bill said they support Atlantic City but didn’t believe the industry’s future rests on Internet gambling.

“On the one hand, they’re talking about destination resort. Now they want gambling with the Internet,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex. “This Internet gaming is not going to solve the problem.”

Caputo, who supports expanding gambling to the Meadowlands Complex, said he wants to see gambling issues addressed through constitutional amendments, such as when the state authorized casinos in Atlantic City in 1976.

The Legislature heard from a law professor who said a constitutional amendment was unnecessary, but Caputo said he disagreed because the state constitution had to be amended when casinos were authorized in Atlantic City, and he believed that any new forms of gambling should follow the same process.

“Either we’re going to follow the constitution or we’re not,” Caputo said.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, one of the bill’s sponsors and a lawyer, said he didn’t want to wait to put the issue on the November ballot. Lesniak said that because the Internet gambling equipment would reside in Atlantic City, the proposal conformed with the state constitution’s restrictions on gambling location.

“There are some casinos that are teetering on bankruptcy, quite frankly,” Lesniak said. “This will enable casinos to stay open rather than closing.”

The senator said he didn’t hold much stock in the level of opposition to the bill because it received more than the necessary 41 votes in the Assembly and he believes it has the necessary 21 votes in the Senate to pass Thursday. Whether Christie will sign it remains unknown.

“I learned a long time ago that all I need is 41-21 and one,” Lesniak said. “We’ll get the 21 on Thursday, and hopefully we’ll get the one.”

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