Gov. Chris Christie announced Friday that he vetoed a bill meant to bypass a federal ban and legalize sports betting in New Jersey casinos and racetracks.
State Sen. Ray Lesniak, who sponsored the bill, called the veto “a dagger in the heart of Atlantic City’s casinos” and said he will move to override it in the Legislature.
Hoping that taxable casino-hotel revenue would spike as people flocked to Garden State gambling halls to bet on sports, New Jersey fought in court for years to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which effectively bans sports betting in all but four states.
But the NCAA and all four major sports leagues fought back to keep the practice from spreading beyond Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon, which received exemptions to maintain sports betting operations in place before Congress enacted PASPA in 1992.
Sports betting taints honest competition by stoking suspicion among fans that bets are affecting games, and PASPA rightfully bans the practice, the leagues argued.
Federal judges repeatedly sided with the leagues, and in June the U.S. Supreme Court let the ban stand.
In his veto announced Friday, Gov. Christie wrote that while he disagreed with the ruling of the appellate court that reviewed the case, “I do believe that the rule of law is sacrosanct.”
And he said Lesniak’s bill tried “to sidestep federal law.”
Judges during the sports-betting litigation implied that PASPA merely banned states from sponsoring sports betting, not from simply staying mum on the issue and letting casinos and racetracks do what they will.
So in late June state lawmakers passed with overwhelming support a bill to do precisely that.
The plan was for the state to take a hands-off approach to sports betting in New Jersey gambling halls — not formally authorizing it, but not prohibiting it, either. Because there would be no state sponsorship in the practice, Garden State racetracks and casinos could take sports bets without violating PASPA, the argument went.
Some gaming attorneys called the bill a creative workaround to the federal ban; others said it was a bizarre end-run around the law. But there was a consensus among them: it was a long shot.
Even if Christie had signed the bill, the plan faced further legal hurdles from the leagues, which might have sued for an injunction to stop the law from taking effect.
In June, Lesniak , D-Union, told The Press of Atlantic City that Monmouth Park racetrack was prepared to take sports bets in time for the 2014 NFL regular season.
He said on Friday that he would move to override the governor’s veto, and that state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, supports that move.
Sweeney could not immediately be reached for comment.
“All we need are a handful of Republicans in each house (of the Legislature),” Lesniak said.
But “It’s a sad day in Mudville. Mighty Casey has struck out,” he said, paraphrasing the Ernest Thayer poem. “I’m really surprised Gov. Christie has thrown in the towel.”
Staff Writer Derek Harper contributed to this report.
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