NJ casino expansion backers prep for worst, try to limit damage

ATLANTIC CITY — Backers of a proposal to add two new casinos to northern New Jersey, near New York City, concede that voters will likely reject it next month, and now want to try to keep the margin of defeat from being too great.

At a forum Friday in support of the ballot question, many backers acknowledged what polls have shown for months: The measure is probably headed for defeat.

They agreed that, at this point, the best they can do is to attempt to limit the damage.

Bill Pascrell III, a lobbyist supporting the measure, said that if the proposal loses by 20 or more points, it will be much harder politically to get it back on the ballot in two years.

“Our goal is to do everything we can to keep this as close as possible,” he said.

Ralph Caputo, a Democratic state Assemblyman from northern New Jersey, was more blunt.

“If we get clocked, we’re not coming back,” he said.

If the referendum is defeated in the Nov. 8 election, it cannot appear on a statewide ballot for another two years.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat whose district includes the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, where one of the new casinos is proposed, said the next attempt should ask voters to approve only one new casino at the Meadowlands, and reveal what tax rate it would pay.

New Jersey officials have refused to reveal key details of the casino expansion proposal. The ballot question does not specify where the casinos would be built, what rate they would be taxed at, and how the resulting tax revenue would be allocated.

The only other casino proposal to be publicly revealed is in Jersey City, where Reebok footwear magnate Paul Fireman proposes a $5 billion casino development.

Opponents say north Jersey casinos will cause three to five of Atlantic City’s seven remaining casinos to close. Earlier this week, New Jersey Policy Perspectives, a liberal think tank, issued one of many reports asserting that casino expansion would hurt southern New Jersey, and that many of its promised benefits are not likely to materialize.

The north Jersey casino proposal comes as Atlantic City’s casino market continues to crumble. Five casinos have shut down since 2014, and the city’s gambling revenue has fallen from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $2.56 billion last year.

The proposal is designed to recapture money from gamblers from northern New Jersey who now spend it at casinos in New York or Pennsylvania.

“There’s a saying, ‘You have to fish where the fish are,’” said Judy Ross, vice president of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, “This is where the fish are.”

Jeff Gural, who operates the Meadowlands track, is partnered with Hard Rock International on a plan for a casino there. He has offered to pay the same 55 percent tax rate that Pennsylvania casinos pay on their slot machine revenue, and estimates it would provide New Jersey with $500 million in annual tax revenue.

Under the current proposal, part of that money would go to Atlantic City to help redevelop it as a more non-gambling resort.

Gural predicted a casino will eventually be built at his track, even if takes six or more years. But he said he will no longer support giving any tax aid to Atlantic City in a future referendum, saying the city has refused to tackle its own problems.

“I will never go along with a referendum that gives all that money to Atlantic City,” Gural said. “They had their chance; they screwed it up.”

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