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NO DICE ON CASINO QUESTION

Full Article

-- Asbury Park Press

MANALAPAN,NJ -- October 24, 2016 -- We have long supported the idea of ending Atlantic City’s monopoly on casino gambling in New Jersey, arguing among other things that the competition for the gaming dollar from neighboring states was depriving the state of badly needed tax revenue.

We still feel that way. But the ballot question that will be presented to voters on Nov. 8, which would allow two casinos to be built in North Jersey, leaves too many unanswered questions to warrant support. Should the question be defeated, as polls suggest is likely, its sponsors should go back to the drawing boards, fill in the blanks and provide ample opportunities for public comment.

We have previously criticized the ballot question for being ill-defined. Most importantly, it fails to spell out how heavily the casino operators would be taxed, making it impossible to estimate how much revenue two casinos might generate, or what criteria would be used in selecting casino sites and casino operators.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, a bill co-sponsor and former gaming executive, recognized late in the process that the vagueness of the bill and the general distrust of voters about anything involving Trenton lawmakers and tax money, put its passage in jeopardy. Last month, he drafted a resolution that provided more specifics about tax rates and the uses for which the revenue would be put, but it went nowhere in either the Senate or Assembly.

So, voters will have to decide whether they want to buy a pig in a poke.

Supporters argue the casino bill isn’t perfect, but it’s better than allowing the gaming competition from other states to continue eating into New Jersey’s casino-generated tax revenue. To be sure, the failure of the Legislature to react to that competition over the past decade has not only hurt Atlantic City, but cut deeply into the tax revenue earmarked for seniors and the disabled. At its peak in 2006, Atlantic City gaming generated more than $500 million in tax revenue for the state coffers. Today, it is around $200 million.

The promise of a gaming industry that would not only generate revenue for the state but help transform Atlantic City — all of it — into something of a showcase never materialized. The poverty and crime persist. It remains a tale of two cities — one of which remains a barrier to attracting the families and nongaming attractions needed to allow it to thrive.

Now, new promises are being made that sound as empty as those that characterized the promises made when Atlantic City gambling was on the ballot some four decades ago. It will create thousands of new jobs. It will provide a major economic stimulus for Bergen and Hudson counties. It will generate revenue that will provide more funding for seniors and the disabled, for the distressed horse breeding industry and for initiatives that can help transform Atlantic City into a world-class tourist destination.

Here are a few of the reasons why aren’t buying it. And why we don’t believe the ballot question deserves passage.

•The revenue numbers cited by its proponents aren’t credible. How can they be when the tax rates for casino earnings haven’t been determined? Atlantic City casinos are taxed at less than 9 percent — far below the rate of most casinos in neighboring states. Voters should know what those rates will be before being asked to decide whether to support the referendum. Will most of the revenue go in the pockets of the casino owners or in state coffers? Will the worsening traffic in the two areas most likely to host the new casinos — the Meadowlands and the Jersey City waterfront — and the cost of providing the infrastructure needed to get gamers and casino workers to and from their destinations be worth the revenue the casinos will generate?

•Supporters of the ballot question claim the sites and operators of the two casinos will be selected through an open bidding process. Skepticism is warranted here. Most of the funding for the ad campaigns supporting the ballot question came from David Gural and Paul Fireman, both of whom have proposals to build casinos — Gural at the Meadowlands and Fireman in Jersey City. They recently announced the “suspension of the paid media component” of their pro-referendum OUR Turn NJ campaign after internal polling on the referendum showed they may be wasting their money.

It also should be noted that the ballot question specifies that the new casinos must be at least 72 miles from Atlantic City — just far enough away to exclude Monmouth Park Racetrack from consideration. The horse track is badly in need of revenue. But its likely share under the terms of the ballot question won’t be nearly enough to save it or the horse farms essential to its success.

•The legislation authorizing casino gambling in Atlantic City back in the 1970s earmarked all the revenue for programs assisting seniors and the disabled. To broaden legislative support for two casinos in North Jersey, sponsors tossed out goodies for a long list of constituencies, watering down the positive impact for any of them, including seniors and the disabled.

•To get support from South Jersey legislators whose primary interest is protecting Atlantic City, lawmakers agreed to dedicate up to $200 million of the revenue generated from the North Jersey casinos to prop up Atlantic City. That would be a huge mistake. The city’s days as THE gambling mecca east of Las Vegas are long gone. It’s time for the city to stand on its own. If the state wants to raise revenue through gambling, that revenue should not be used to subsidize gambling. It should be directed at programs to benefit those who need it the most, as was the original intent of the casino legislation four decades earlier.

With Public Question 1, voters are being asked to place their bets without even knowing what cards they have been dealt. They should fold their hands on Nov. 8.
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