Casino expansion amendment approved for November ballot

New Jersey voters will be called upon to decide this fall whether to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City into North Jersey.

Both chambers of the Legislature voted Monday to approve a resolution to ask voters to amend the state constitution to permit two casinos to operate in North Jersey counties.

During a busy voting day, the Assembly also approved a package of bills intended to aid the state's impoverished residents by boosting the earned income tax credit, rental aid and general assistance.

The Senate also approved controversial legislation to permit the state to take control of most of Atlantic City's finances and provide fixed payments in lieu of property taxes from casinos in order to avoid bankruptcy.

The casino expansion bill was approved with the required three-fifths majority in both the Senate and Assembly to get the amendment on the ballot in November.

The Senate voted 34-6, the Assembly 54-16 with four abstentions.

"There’s a new world order when it comes to casino gaming, and we have to act to compete with the casinos in other states,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, said after the vote.

If the amendment is approved, it would mark the first time casino gambling was permitted outside of Atlantic City since voters originally approved gambling in 1976.

Supporters have argued that competition from states like Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Maryland demands an end to Atlantic City's monopoly on casino gambling, and that opening casinos in North Jersey is the only way to compete and recapture some of the lost gaming revenues.

"If you don't adapt, you become a dinosaur and you become extinct," Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-28th of Nutley, said during a floor speech before the vote. "We can't just say no to change. We have to adapt."

Assemblymen Chris A. Brown, R-2nd of Ventnor, and Vince Mazzeo, D-2nd of Northfield, responded with their own floor speeches, arguing that additional casinos in North Jersey will only hurt Atlantic City's remaining casinos.

"The way we're going to fix the problem of oversupply and too much competition is to build more casinos," Brown said. "This is the state hurting itself."

"You have the ability to give pink slips to 10,000 of our constituents," Mazzeo said before the vote.

The amendment does not specify exactly where in North Jersey the new casinos will be located, other than that they must be in different counties at least 72 miles from Atlantic City. Most speculation has centered on the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford and in Jersey City.

Also left to the enabling legislation would be the tax rate the new casinos would pay. The amendment does specify that tax revenues from the North Jersey casinos would be split between programs for seniors and the disabled, and would help revitalize Atlantic City with non-gaming development. Two percent would also go to the state's horse racing industry, and 2 percent would go to the host municipalities and counties.

Although the majority of lawmakers supported the resolutions, recent polls show that voters have mixed feelings about the idea. A February Rutgers-Eagleton Poll found 49 percent against it, compared with 44 percent in favor.

Mazzeo and other opponents have also promised a noisy and expensive campaign against the amendment.

The casino votes overshadowed the Assembly's approval of several bills that would address the rise of poverty in New Jersey.

Among those that passed was a measure to raise the earned income tax credit for the working poor to 40 percent of the federal benefit, up from 30 percent. The change was expected to boost the payment to the average qualifying family by about $255.

Other bills in the package would increase the maximum benefits paid out to individuals and families who receive general assistance and provide funding for 10,000 more vouchers for rental help.

The bills were written following a daylong legislative session devoted to the issue of poverty.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-32nd of Secaucus, said the measures were needed to provide long-overdue assistance to the state's poor.

"This is tax fairness for the people who need it most," Prieto said.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, also supported the poverty package.

"The measures advanced today by the General Assembly will ensure that our social safety net remains strong and provides an opportunity for many to advance up the ladder of success towards economic mobility and sustainability," Singleton said.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-21st of Westfield, said the measures represented an additional $240 million in spending that the state may not be able to afford without tax increases.

"This type of spending is what got the state of New Jersey into the (financial) condition we're in," Bramnick said.

Most of the bills must still be approved by the Senate before going to Gov. Chris Christie for consideration.

One controversial bill headed to Christie would amend the state's anti-discrimination law to extend the statute of limitations for unequal pay claims, and require all government contractors in New Jersey to report employee gender and compensation information to the Department of Labor and Division of Civil Rights.

The measure was previously approved by the Senate and was passed by the Assembly on Monday.

Supporters said the changes would help address the lingering problem of gender inequity in the workplace. They said most women get about 80 cents on the dollar that men earn for the same job.

Opponents said the bill would hurt businesses and help plaintiffs' attorneys.

Aside from the casino expansion resolution, the most controversial bills approved by the Senate involved the takeover of Atlantic City's finances. The bill and the accompanying casino PILOT measure are intended to help rescue the city from impending bankruptcy. But the package is controversial because it also gives the state the power to sell off city assets and break labor contracts with its union employees.

Christie has said he supports the bills, but Prieto hasn't scheduled a vote on either one.