Legislators who had planned a one-day gaming summit in Atlantic City in August have now extended that plan to include multiple hearings in multiple cities throughout the month.
Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, and Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, will lead the legislative summit Aug. 6 at the Atlantic City Convention Center to chart the future of New Jersey's gaming, sports and horse racing industries.
The two lawmakers said the panel's first meeting will review the far-reaching recommendations released last week by Gov. Chris Christie's gaming commission. Jon Hanson, who headed the govenor's commission, has been invited.
The governor's plan proposes creating a public-private partnership between state and business representatives to oversee a newly outlined "tourism district" in Atlantic City, but also proposes that the state sell its two racetracks at Meadowlands and Monmouth Park.
But Whelan stated Friday that the summit needed "subsequent hearings," raising the prospect that the Democrats' extended forum could slow down the writing of legislation to support Republican Christie's plan for Atlantic City.
Republicans have already said that they want to see bills fast-tracked to support the governor's agenda. Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, said Thursday that he and other Republican supporters of Christie's plan want to see bills drafted within five weeks.
The new idea of the summit as a series of hearings comes as Senate and Assembly Democrats maneuver to express qualified support for parts of Christie's agenda, while reserving their right to oppose other parts of the proposal.
Whelan, who appeared in the front-row at Christie's key public announcement last week outside Boardwalk Hall, expressed strong support that day for the decision to back Atlantic City as a future family friendly resort and to hold off allowing video-lottery-style slot machines at racetracks in northern or central New Jersey.
But on Friday, the former mayor of Atlantic City made it clear that the summit panel - and not the governor's staff - should be the ones to flesh out the proposals.
"We don't know the substance yet of what's being proposed, but that's where I think the summit should have a role," Whelan said.
Burzichelli agreed. He represents the same district as Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who has brought together southern New Jersey legislators from Camden to Cape May as an informal caucus devoted to protecting Atlantic City's casino industry.
"We need to take a close look at this report, dig into the details and fill in the blanks where needed," Burzichelli said. "This report didn't go far enough and left a lot of unanswered questions."
But if lawmakers seek to delay, they may run into conflict with Christie, who has set a deadline of July 1, 2011, for turning Atlantic City around.
So far, Christie has promised to listen to opinions from all sides of the gaming, sports and entertainment issues. But Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, said Thursday, "The governor has not said anything specific about the summit."
How the summit could factor into the process depends on the influence of key Senate Democrats from northern New Jersey: Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, chair of the Senate committee for economic growth, has been a cheerleader for Atlantic City. He has authored legislation to assist the struggling casino project by Revel Entertainment Inc. But Meadowlands Racetrack, one of the two state-owned racetracks, sits just outside his district.
And Lesniak made clear Friday that while he believed in giving Atlantic City every economic advantage in order to boost jobs and state revenue, he could not support the state ditching its support of the racing industry.
He wants to find a way to revive Atlantic City, but not while allowing racetracks to die off, he said. "We want to support and save both, and can easily work that out," he said. The first meeting of the gaming summit is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 6, at the Atlantic City Convention Center, Room 411, One Convention Boulevard, Atlantic City.
Other discussions will be planned in Bergen and Monmouth counties.
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