Assembly offers its bill for casinos outside Atlantic City

The measure, which would require that two new casinos be established in separate counties at least 75 miles from Atlantic City, differs in two ways from similar legislation introduced in the state Senate on Friday. If Trenton lawmakers can reconcile the two, and voters across the state pass the ballot question, the stage could be set for two new casinos to be built in North Jersey, possibly including the Meadowlands.

In the Assembly version, 35 percent — not 49 percent — of North Jersey casino tax revenues would go toward aid for struggling Atlantic City. And only one — not both — of the two new casinos would have to be run by an existing Atlantic City casino operator.

“This is a more practical approach,” said resolution co-sponsor Ralph Caputo, an Essex County assemblyman who added that he hopes that both chambers of the Legislature will vote on the measure as soon as Thursday. “It’s hard enough to get the question on the ballot — and if the public thinks an unfair share of the money would go to Atlantic City, it would be that much harder.”

A majority vote backing the ballot resolutions during this month’s lame duck session in Trenton would mean that only another majority vote would be needed in the new session next year to put the casino expansion question to voters next fall. If the measure is not approved this year, then a supermajority — 60 percent of both the Senate and Assembly — would be required next year.

“This resolution does the right thing for both Atlantic City and our senior and disabled residents,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Secaucus, a co-sponsor of the measure that also dedicates 2 percent of new casino tax revenues for horse racing purse supplements and the rest to those residents. “This is something everyone can support.”

But several South Jersey legislators criticized the Senate version on Friday — even with estimates that as much as $3 billion could go to an Atlantic City development agency in the first 15 years. The newly created entity would be directed to find ways to give the city a makeover while encouraging development of non-gaming tourist attractions. The Assembly bill would reduce that so-called “renaissance fund” by 14 percent.

Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural or former Reebok executive Paul Fireman, who wants to build a multi-billion dollar casino resort in Jersey City, would have a chance to win a bid without having to find an Atlantic City casino partner under the Assembly’s version of the bill. Gural and a spokesman for Fireman declined to comment on the changes Monday.

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