New Jersey residents want to bet on the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NCAA's March Madness basketball tournament, and other professional and college sports.
By about a 2-1 margin Tuesday, they approved a ballot referendum to legalize sports betting at the Atlantic City casinos and the state's horse-racing tracks - providing a potential boon to two struggling industries. Unofficial returns showed the measure was favored by 66 percent of the voters, with 34 percent opposed.
But first, a federal ban on sports betting in all but four states would have to be lifted by Congress or overturned by the courts for New Jersey to offer wagering on professional and college teams.
"A big ‘yes' vote will send a strong message to Congress and the courts that New Jersey has the same right to the revenues, jobs and tourism that legal sports betting brings to the state of Nevada," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union.
Lesniak, one of the state's biggest sports betting proponents, plans to introduce legislation as soon as this week to get the ball rolling. New Jersey's ballot question authorizes the Legislature to amend the state constitution to make sports betting legal. Betting would be permitted on professional and collegiate sports, except for athletic events taking place in New Jersey or games involving New Jersey colleges.
Lesniak hopes a sports betting bill can be approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie by Jan. 10, when the current legislative session ends. The governor has expressed his support for sports betting.
"He wants to get it passed when it's still hot and put it on the governor's desk," said William J. Pascrell III, a lobbyist who is working with Lesniak on the sports betting campaign.
Lesniak and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, also plan to be back in court by February with their lawsuit to overturn the federal ban on sports betting, Pascrell said. Currently, only Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana are allowed to offer sports betting because they had it before the federal ban was enacted in 1992.
Casinos and racetracks lobbied heavily for sports betting in hopes that it will revive two slumping industries. Pascrell said an estimated $800 million in additional revenue would be generated annually for the 11 casinos and the four tracks, including Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing.
Citing a University of Pennsylvania study conducted last year, Pascrell also said sports betting is expected to generate more than $10 billion in annual wagering. New Jersey would get an 8 percent cut of the betting action through the state's gross wagering tax.
"That's $800 million off the top before anybody wins or loses," Pascrell said of the state's estimated share.
Additional income for the state would come from New Jersey's income tax. Pascrell said gamblers would have to pay income tax on their winnings.
Not everyone is enamored with sports betting, however. The major sports leagues lobbied against it, claiming that it could lead to cheating scandals. Arnold Wexler, former executive director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, fears that sports betting will lead to more problem gamblers.
"I believe that anytime you add or expand gambling, you get more people to try it and it adds to addiction," Wexler said.
Wexler argued that New Jersey's sports betting efforts may simply be a waste of time. He predicted that Congress will not lift the federal ban, saying the chances of a repeal are "zero to none."
"I can't see them getting it, because I can't see the feds allowing it," Wexler said. "I can't see it happening. Not in our lifetime."
Atlantic City casino customers interviewed Tuesday said they are anxious to begin placing sports bets. One of them, Mike Pisko, 77, of Freehold, Monmouth County, said he would come to Atlantic City more often if sports betting became legal.
"If they got it here, it would bring me down on Sundays for football," said Pisko, who was wearing a New York Giants jacket and a baseball cap bearing the logo of the Haskell Invitational thoroughbred race at Monmouth Park.
Pisko, a retired harness-racing driver who owns thoroughbreds, believes sports betting is crucial for revitalizing New Jersey's racetracks. He characterized the tracks as a "dying industry."
Michael Luna, 45, an Atlantic City resident, said sports betting would boost the local economy and complement efforts to turn the gambling town into a more appealing tourist destination.
"Helping out the local economy in terms of bringing more revenue to the casinos is a plus," Luna said. "It also adds to the opportunity of Atlantic City becoming a magnet for families and entertainment. And with this being a football and baseball area, it would be a win-win."
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