Lawmakers now want 3 casinos in northern N.J.

Matt Freidman NJ Advance Media

Several lawmakers who want to allow casino gambling outside of Atlantic City are now seeking as many as three casinos in northern New Jersey — up from two.

The trio of Assembly members from Essex, Bergen and Hudson Counties on Monday announced that they've introduced a proposed constitutional amendment — which, if passed by the Legislature, would have to be approved by voters — to allow the casinos in their three counties. 

Revenue from the casinos would in part go to redeveloping Atlantic City, which has been devastated by the downturn of its gambling industry largely due to competition from neighboring states.

"We can't sit by any longer. The history of Atlantic City is one I was part of," Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), a former casino executive who is sponsoring the resolution with Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), said during a Statehouse press conference. "The business has changed. We've had tremendous competition from our neighboring states... If you don't adapt, you become extinct and you become a dinosaur."

Casino gaming has only been allowed Atlantic City since voters chose to legalize it there in 1976.

This is the third constitutional amendment on the subject Caputo has proposed. The first, originally introduced in 2010, would have only permitted the expansion of gambling to Bergen County (ACR141). The second (ACR178), introduced last summer, would allow it at up to two locations to be determined by the Legislature.

The number has increased to three in the newest proposal as support for expanding gaming has increased, with formerly staunch opponents like Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) andGov. Chris Christie now being open to it.

"I've been fighting for this for six or seven years. When I started this effort, people thought it was folly. This has become a reality," Caputo said.

What's not clear is when voters will have the opportunity to decide. Caputo wants it on the ballot this November, meaning it must pass the state Assembly and Senate with three-fifths majorities by the Aug. 3 deadline for printing ballots. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), however, has been reluctant to post it for a vote this year.

Already, potential operators and investors are pitching casino plans for The Meadowlands and Jersey City. Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo thinks Newark would be an ideal location for one.

But now lawmakers in Central Jersey want to be included in the discussion as well.

"We have some of the wealthiest people in the country. We're at the crossroads of intestates," said state Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R-Somerset), who said he's going to make a legislative push for a central Jersey casino with state Sens. Bob Smith and Linda Greenstein (both D-Middlesex). "We want to throw our oar the water and see if we can lobby to get one forward."

And there's still resistance to allowing casinos outside of Atlantic City from the lawmakers who represent it. Although state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), a former Atlantic City mayor, has said that expanding gaming is "the reality of where we are," his district's assemblymen — who unlike Whelan are up for reelection this year — don't see it that way.

"To think somehow that by cannibalizing Atlantic City you're going to help hardworking families here in our state I think is a grave mistake," Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) told reporters leaving the Caputo press conference.

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) said in a statement that he would also oppose it because "It's disruptive to talk about casinos in North Jersey while South Jersey families are still reeling from having their jobs, health care and stability taken away."

Caputo, for his part, said he would support giving priority to laid off Atlantic City workers for jobs in the northern casinos.

And at least one prominent support of north Jersey gaming said he still feels that two casinos — not three — is the right number.

"I believe the expansion should be limited to two casinos in North Jersey that are at least 100 miles from Atlantic City so we don't oversaturate the market," Sarlo said in a statement.

At the press conference, Mukherji — the Hudson Conty assemblyman — estimated that three north Jersey casinos would create 20,000 casino jobs and 30,000 indirectly-related jobs.

Or as Mukherji said: "Jobs, jobs, jobs. Jobs-job-job-job-jobs, jobs, jobs."