Last November, nearly 80 percent of New Jersey voters showed up at the polls to vote against expanding gaming outside of Atlantic City. Voters saw through the false fiscal projections and empty promises of outside big-money interests who stood to gain enormously, while taxpayers stood to lose an estimated $2 billion in economic activity and 30,000 jobs.
Despite voters’ overwhelming opposition at the polls, expansion proponents wasted no time in circumventing their will. Out-of-state gaming corporations immediately began working with legislators behind closed doors to draft bills that would allow various forms of gaming expansion without another referendum vote, including Historical Horse Racing, video lottery terminals, racetrack slot parlors and racetrack internet gaming cafes. Each of these concepts is nothing more than a backdoor effort to allow gaming expansion at any cost.
Expansion proponents continue to run into two big problems with their efforts to skirt the results from this past November’s ballot result — the unconstitutionality of gaming expansion within the two-year period of its ballot failure and the lack of credibility by both the developers and the elected officials who support this cause.
The referendum system allows voters in New Jersey to have their voices heard on critical issues that we face as a state. For years, voters have determined public policy through this system and elected officials have been forced to respect those policies. By allowing residents to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment, it adds another check and balance to the Legislature, while preventing bad legislation from being passed after the public has already spoken out on a particular issue. The current effort to expand gaming in the face of November’s referendum result undermines our system of government and the state constitution.
Gaming expansion proponents also face a real lack of credibility with their claims of increased revenue and job creation — the same issues they faced in their failed campaign on Question One last November. Billionaire developer Jeff Gural, who was the loudest voice and biggest funder of casino expansion, has a troubling track record of making promises to state government officials and residents, then making threats when things do not go his way. Recently, Gural threatened New York State officials with closing his Vernon Downs racetrack and casino if they did not provide him with the tax breaks he felt he was entitled to. This was after his revenue promises went unmet and education commitments to students in the Empire State suffered.
This is just a glimpse of what is to come if New Jersey residents buy what Gural and his Trenton friends — many of whom have accepted thousands in political contributions — are selling. If the special interests are allowed to expand gaming in New Jersey, voters will be in a no-win situation where we would be held captive by an out-of-state developer who threatens to close up shop whenever he fails to get the payback from Trenton he feels he is owed.
We need decision makers in Trenton to make the well-being of our citizens their top priority. But as we struggle to fund our children’s schools, maintain crumbling infrastructure and meet staggering pension obligations to public workers, Trenton politicians are spending their time and energy making another desperate attempt to reward New York developers and big campaign donors with taxpayer dollars. These gaming expansion bills are nothing more than another shady deal hatched in the backrooms of Trenton helping billionaires and leaving New Jersey residents footing the bill when their projects inevitably fail.
New Jersey has seen this show before. Time and again Trenton politicians promised to protect the pensions of law enforcement and state workers, but failed to do so; time and again Trenton politicians promised to invest resources into the Transportation Trust Fund to maintain and enhance the state’s infrastructure, but used the resources as a personal piggy bank for pet projects; time and again Trenton politicians promised to lower property taxes, yet New Jersey has some of the highest taxes in the country. This latest promise on gaming expansion serving as some sort of revenue panacea is just another fiction made up in the state capitol that has little to no hope of materializing.
The people of New Jersey deserve a government that respects their will, their vote and their state constitution. Trenton politicians owe it to the taxpayers, residents and small business owners of New Jersey to respect their wishes, put their interests first and stop this shadow expansion effort.
Bob McDevitt is president Unite Here Local 54; Patty Abrahamsen is a councilwoman in Rockaway Township; Pastor David Rios represents the Passaic County Spanish Clergy Organization (La Alianza Civica Ministerial); and Greg Balderacchi is a board member of Trenton’s Bad Bet.