Opinion: The merits of gaming in North Jersey

Bergen Record Op-Ed

BY VALERIE VAINIERI HUTTLE

NEW JERSEY'S economy has had a difficult time recovering from the effects of the recession. Our job creation lags behind the rest of the nation, and we lack revenue for key programs such as education, property tax relief and pensions. Now we have an opportunity to generate billions of dollars without raising taxes or fees. We should take it.

That opportunity is the expansion of gaming to North Jersey. For years, our state has shelved the possibility of new gaming destinations to protect Atlantic City. But that strategy has proved ineffective. That is why I, along with Assemblymen Ralph Caputo, D-Belleville, and Raj Mukherji, D-Jersey City, have introduced legislation to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November to allow for new gaming in North Jersey.

Gaming expansion is not about Atlantic City versus other parts of the state. It is about the economic future of all of New Jersey. New gaming would allow us to reclaim more than $1 billion in revenue going out of state to our neighbors in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. It would also mean jobs, thousands of construction and operations jobs for New Jersey residents. Those jobs, together with approximately $600 million in additional potential revenue from new casinos, hotels, retail stores, entertainment spaces and other attractions, would put New Jersey back on sound financial footing.

The possibilities for a better New Jersey are not only for the business sector, but also for our most vulnerable residents. We cannot forget that casino revenue was originally meant to help those in need. Since 2006, New Jersey Gross Gaming Revenue has declined 45 percent, losing $2.3 billion to neighboring states like New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and others.

As chairwoman of the Assembly Human Services Committee, I have seen firsthand the impact of this. The Casino Revenue Fund, which was created to help the state's low-income seniors and developmentally disabled, has lost hundreds of millions of dollars, and residents in need have been shortchanged. Programs such as Meals on Wheels, Senior Property Tax Freeze, Alzheimer's Home Care and Respite Care and transportation for seniors and the developmentally disabled have all remained flat despite increased demand because casino spending has moved on to other states.

Bring dollars back here

We have to get those dollars back.

Expanded gaming will send about $500 million annually to the Casino Revenue Fund to pay for these vital programs, alleviating the burden on taxpayers to make up for diminishing funds and also allowing more revenue for education, infrastructure or pensions.

Although talk of new gaming has focused on northern New Jersey, we are not neglecting Atlantic City. A portion of the revenue from new casinos would be pumped into Atlantic City for infrastructure, redevelopment and revitalization. North Jersey gaming has the potential to leverage billions of dollars to enhance resources for Atlantic City and other priorities across New Jersey.

Billions in private investment

Proposals have already been put forward for casinos and other venues that would bring in billions of dollars in private investment to New Jersey. There is no other industry, business or plan on the table that would generate that kind of privately funded investment in our state. We have an opportunity right now to expand gaming and benefit our entire state. Waiting just one more year could bring even more casinos just over New Jersey's borders. Simply stated, we can't afford, literally and figuratively, to wait any longer.

The time for North Jersey gaming is now.

Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Assembly deputy speaker, represents New Jersey's 37th Legislative District.