While New Jersey voters hit their polling places Tuesday to vote for the President of the United States, they also rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have authorized the construction of two casinos outside of Atlantic City. The New Jersey Allowance for Casinos in Two Additional Counties Amendment, called Public Question 1 on the ballot, received 2,201,768 in the negative and just 633,034 in the positive.
When casino gambling was legalized in New Jersey in 1976 – also by a ballot measure – it restricted casinos to Atlantic City. That was the year I was born and for much of my life, Atlantic City was known as the gambling hub of the east coast, a more convenient, if slightly less glitzy alternative to Las Vegas. But this century, an economic downturn resulted in fewer people decided to spend their disposable income on gambling while at the same time, casinos in neighboring states rose to prominence. Where Atlantic City once had a near-monopoly on east coast gambling, regional customers now had more options nearby in Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. Atlantic City has suffered and in the last two years, five casinos have closed.
Thus, the rise of the proposed amendment, which would permit two casinos to be built at least 72 miles from Atlantic City. The idea was to bring casino gambling to northern New Jersey (Atlantic City is in the southern part of the state) and therefore keep residents in that area from leaving for the gambling adventures. A large chunk of taxes generated from the potential casinos would have gone back to Atlantic City to help in its economic recovery.
Passions on both sides of the issue were strong, as around $13 million was donated to the Trenton’s Bad Bet PAC in opposition of the casino expansion, and about $10 billion was contributed to Our Turn NJ, a PAC in favor of new casinos. The main contributors to Trenton’s Bad Beat were three New York casino companies (who obviously didn’t want more competition nearby) and the owners of Resorts Casino in Atlantic City.
“For years, Trenton politicians have made promises they could not keep, leaving taxpayers holding the bag when their schemes failed,” said Trenton’s Bad Bet executive director Bill Cortese in October. “Casino expansion into North Jersey is another scheme backed by Trenton insiders who continue to put the needs of deep-pocketed, special interests over the residents of New Jersey.”
The founders and sole contributors of Our Turn NJ were former Reebok CEO and developer Paul Fireman and Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural. Each wanted to build billion dollar casino properties in northern New Jersey. They stopped spending money on the campaign in late September, when polling indicated that the ballot measure likely had no chance to pass.
“We do not view the failure to pass Question No. 1 as a rejection of gaming expansion but as a rejection of our state’s current political climate and a failure to have all the facts presented to them,” said Fireman and Gural. “New Jersey has to start from the beginning on gaming expansion. What the people of this state need to see is a transparent, competitive plan that outlines in full detail how gaming expansion would work.”
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