Lawmakers Propose Bill to Legalize Sports Betting in NJ

By Briana Vannozzi

“We’re seeking to eliminate all the prohibitions that prevent New Jersey from having sports betting,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo.

At first blush, the bill proposed by North Jersey Assemblyman Caputo and South Jersey Assemblyman John Burzichelli to eliminate any state regulations on sports betting seems bold. But the legislators say after the U.S. third circuit court of appeals shot down New Jersey’s last attempt to legalize sports betting at race tracks and casinos, it left a door open with a final option.

“The court’s decision indicated that if those prohibitions were eliminated they would not be able to stop, that’s the interpretation. So we’re heading in that direction. There’s a lot of work to do on this issue,” Caputo said.

An act from 1992 puts a federal ban on sports betting in the state. A New Jersey contingent, including Caputo, has been fighting it or seeking a way around it since 2009. Only four states — Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana — squeaked in under the 1991 federal deadline allowing sports wagering.

“The courts are almost saying to us if you have no rules involving sports betting at all, then we have no purview here, you can do whatever you want to do. So this bill, which is really very much a work in progress, is designed to be a message to the federal government saying listen, we believe this is a state’s rights issue. Essentially we’ll take away all regulations related to sports betting,” Burzichelli said.

Burzichelli refers to the measure as the “nuclear option” — not a perfect solution but has the right intent.

“New Jersey citizens want to be able to bet on sports in a safe, controlled environment. The constitution reflects that. Our battle now is with the federal government who refuses to recognize this as a state’s rights issue,” Burzichelli said.

A new FDU PublicMind poll finds a majority of Americans support legalized sports betting, with 48 percent in favor and 39 percent against. Supporters say top reasons include the fact that it’s already happening and would create more tax revenue for states. Particularly in New Jersey as it struggles to revive Atlantic City’s economy.

“It’s a gambit we have to study and look at, but it has to be controlled in a way that doesn’t violate the federal ban, at the same time doesn’t open it up to abuse,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak.

Lesniak will help draft the bill. He began the charge in New Jersey. He says if left unprotected, lifting regulations could create the wild west for gambling.

“It would just allow for anyone, anytime, anywhere, any place to take bets on sports games. By the way, that was very much en vogue when I was growing up in Elizabeth. I myself went to the corner grocery store. I experienced it. We bet on the numbers. I put bets in for my dad. That’s not good,” he said.

No one seems to be arguing the fact that sports betting is already taking place, illegally and often in plain sight. The lawmakers say the state is missing out on millions in potential revenue. They’ve got the interest of the public and the governor, and say that makes fighting the federal government on this less daunting.