Assembly Panel Advances Internet Gambling Bill

The lobbyists were back in the State House halls today. Some of them were there to see the fate of an Internet wagering bill in an Assembly committee hearing.

If it becomes law, New Jerseyans would be able to gamble on Atlantic City casino games from their home computers. Its backers say it could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to the 11 Atlantic City casinos.

Senator Raymond Lesniak noted that in the last 36 months, those casinos have suffered 35 months of declining revenue.

Said Lesniak, “without an influx of substantial revenue that Internet gaming will provide to our casinos, I’m very, very afraid that some will close and people will lose their jobs. It’ll just cast a pall over the entire atmosphere for gaming in Atlantic City. This is a lifeline.”

Gov. Chris Christie vetoed an Internet gaming bill a year ago, arguing that any expansion of gambling requires voter approval under the state constitution.

The proponents of the bill are back again because revenues are still declining in Atlantic City, and because when people play poker online, the money goes to offshore operators.

Bill Pascrell III, a gaming lobbyist, testified that “there are over 600,000 Jersey residents that play poker online right now, as we speak.”

The committee approved the bill 3 to 1, with 1 abstention. Democratic Assemblyman Ralph Caputo voted “no” because he wants a package deal that would allow slot machines at the Meadowlands and thinks both changes require voter approval.

“We have a bill, ACR 53, which would place the question of gaming in the Meadowlands on the ballot,” said Caputo. “That seems to be stalled. So I believe that both of these issues should go before the public to let them make the ultimate decisions.”

Those with horse racing interests testified against the bill, fearing new competition.

Advocates for the disadvantaged are in favor because casino revenues support programs for the needy.

Enid Torok of the Casino Revenue Advisory Board said, “if you allow Internet gaming to come in, we will put back money that is desperately needed.”

Supporters of Internet wagering think the governor might sign the bill this time because the Casino Association is now united behind it, and because 11 of the past 12 months in Atlantic City have been revenue losers.

Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron reports from the State House.