TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie put the future of gaming on his immediate agenda for the next six months, signing an executive order Wednesday to create an advisory commission that looks at the state’s gambling, sports and entertainment concerns in unison.
Saying he was tired of watching groups consider the problems of declining gambling revenues in Atlantic City and the unprofitable horse racing industry “in a vacuum,” Christie appointed a seven-person group to look for solutions and make policy recommendations by June 30.
“This is aggressive action that we’re taking, to take the bull by the horns,” he said.
His move, for the first time, aligns hopes for the survival of both industries, which have at times seemed to be in competition.
Horse racing advocates have long argued for the installation of video-lottery terminals at state-owned racetracks such as the Meadowlands, a change Atlantic City’s casino representatives have said would destroy the unique draw of southern New Jersey’s gambling resort.
Christie said neither side would hear his predictions on the group’s findings.
“I’m not placing any restrictions or any mandates on this commission,” he said.
“What everybody who has a stake in this needs to understand is, it’s time to get out of your entrenched positions,” he said. “Pure self-interest can work two ways: If it works out for you, you can do pretty well. If it don’t work out, you wind up in the toilet.”
He reiterated that he believed the state’s policy must be “to protect Atlantic City and not damage it.” He also stressed that he wanted to see solutions to make horse racing financially independent.
“The days of subsidy by the state are coming to a close,” he said.
Currently, Atlantic City’s casinos pay $30 million a year to subsidize horse racing statewide, boosting the purses at state-owned racetracks in return for the racetracks agreeing not to pursue VLTs or slot machines. That deal expires at the end of 2011.
The Advisory Commission on Gaming, Sports and Entertainment’s role will not stop at providing ideas, he said.
“I intend to utililize them not only as people who will study this and give me recommendations, but also people who will help the administration — where appropriate — negotiate with the interested parties,” he said.
Christie said solutions that offered additional revenues in time for the 2011 fiscal year budget would be nice, but that is not the only goal.
“Depending on where those certain savings are made, they may have an effect,” he said. “But that’s not what’s driving this.
“What has to drive this process is a much more long-term vision of what we’re going to do with gaming, sports and entertainment in New Jersey,” he said.
Joseph A. Corbo Jr., president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said, “New Jersey’s casino industry looks forward to working together with the governor and his administration and the Legislature in order to collaborate on what is mutually beneficial for Atlantic City and our state.”
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said Wednesday he was disappointed not to see a casino executive sitting on the panel.
“Even though I’m disappointed to see that, we’re going to work with the governor on this and hear what the panel recommends,” he said.
Assemblyman Vincent Polistina, R-Atlantic, said he was heartened to see local representation.
Debra DiLorenzo, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, will sit on the commission, which will be chaired by Jon F. Hanson, a former chairman of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and real estate executive.
DiLorenzo, who did not return calls and messages for comment, was a core member of Christie’s transition team.
Finn Wentworth, another commission member, serves as a managing principal at Normandy Partners, part of the group that invested in the boutique Atlantic City hotel, The Chelsea.
The two major members of the commission, Hanson and Bob Mulcahy III, who served as president of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, both oversaw the horse racing enterprise at the Meadowlands in their roles.
Israel Posner, executive director of the Institute for Gaming Management at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said Wednesday’s step showed a chance to build consensus.
“The reality is, it’s a balancing act of political and economic forces,” he said.
Finding a solution to save gaming would not mean keeping the status quo, he said.
“The fact is, gambling today is like buying eggs or flour — you can do it anywhere,” he said, referring to the rise in horse-track slots in Delaware, casinos in Pennsylvania and illegal online gambling options.
“So for our casino owners, gambling always has to be considered now as one of a palette of options for a venue.”
Christie said his executive order amended one by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine that created a horse racing commission to recommend funding solutions by July 1. Christie said he would want those recommendations no later than April 1, the group’s “pencils-down date.”
He also said his commission members would serve without salary, and after signing the order, he handed the pen he used to Hanson.
“All he gets out of this is this pen,” he said. “And a great deal of aggravation.”
Advisory commission members
Jon F. Hanson, chair
Former chairman and commissioner of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, 1982 to 1994, and real estate executive.
Spent 12 years at the helm of the National Football Foundation; still involved.
Also a director of Yankee Global Enterprises (owns baseball team) and Sports Network LLC (YES Network). Past president and CEO of New Jersey Nets basketball team
Robert Mulcahy III
Former president of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.
Previously served as chief of staff to Gov. Brendan Byrne. Former director of Athletics at Rutgers University
Managing principal of Normandy Partners, one of the partners that helped open The Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City. Past president and CEO of New Jersey Nets basketball team. Founder of the YES Network.
Retired Major League Baseball pitcher. YES Network commentator. Major League Baseball Network analyst
Director of WML Partners LLC, a New Jersey private equity investment and development company
President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey
Law professor at Rutgers School of Law in Newark. Deputy director of clinical programs and director of the Community Law Clinic.
Compiled by staff writer Emily Previti
The commission's goals
The governor defined the critical issues on which the advisory commission must focus as:
The ongoing financial viability of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which he said was running a budget-year deficit of $38 billion
Advancing or resolving the Xanadu retail and entertainment project at the Meadowlands, which he described as "lying fallow"
Improving competitiveness of the Atlantic City gaming industry and promoting the city as a destination resort
Ensuring that horse racing becomes financially self-sustaining
Proper scheduling of entertainment events at the IZOD and Prudential centers to ensure their success
Compiled from Gov. Chris Christie's written statement and interviews on the creation of the commission
Contact Juliet Fletcher: