How New Jersey’s Legislature Nearly Legalized Sports Betting Back in 1993
With a pivotal decision on New Jersey sports gambling set for this week, now seemed to be a good time to look back on the state’s pivotal role in the federal legislation they seek to defeat this week. It is also time to look back at a missed opportunity which still troubles New Jerseyans 23 years later.
In 1991, then-New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley proposed a federal ban on sports gambling. Senator Bradley, who had been a star basketball player for the University of Princeton and the New York Knicks, said, “I think of athletes as persons. I don’t like them to be turned into roulette chips.”
Bill Bradley’s Anti-Gambling Campaign
Bill Bradley started a campaign to ban sports betting throughout the United States. The major sports associations operating in the United States, including the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL, and NCAA, all joined forces to push for a 50-state ban on sports gambling. The bill was called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act or “PASPA”.
As the campaign for PASPA got underway, vested interests pushed back. Four US states were operating sportsbooks at the time: Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon. Those states opposed PASPA so vigorously that the U.S. Congress eventually carved out an exemption for them. The four states were grandfathered into the system, creating an unbalanced legal situation in which four states had a perpetual advantage over 46 others–what some lawyers have suggested is unconstitutional under federal law.
Torricelli’s Pro-Gambling Cause
Former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, who was a U.S. representative from New Jersey at the time, championed for a similar exemption for Atlantic City. For the city to remain a viable east coast rival to Las Vegas, it needed the ability to operate legal sportsbooks.
When asked about his arguments back then, Sen. Torricelli said, “It gave Atlantic City the chance to be more than a destination for daytrippers.”
The Republican-controlled legislature of New Jersey was given a rare opportunity by the US Congress. The state would be given one year to legalize sports betting with a New Jersey constitutional amendment. That meant that such a bill needed to be passed by Jan. 1, 1994, with a bill on the November ballot on Election Day 1993.
To get a measure on the November ballot, the legislature had until late-Summer to approve a ballot issue. State Sen. Louis Bassano, a Republican and a supporter of the measure, pointed out to his contemporaries that the bill would bring in millions in revenues for the state.
Bookies and Illegal Sports Betting
He also pointed out the realities: sports betting already existed. Pointing to the many bookies operating in the state, Bassano said at the time, “It’s an industry that’s already out there. We just want to legalize it.”
Bill Bradley formed a powerful coalition of the sports leagues’ commissioners, NCAA officials, church groups, and law enforcement personnel. He recruited former Knicks teammate Willis Reed to hold a press conference to discuss the issue.
Donald Trump on Sports Betting
The other side had its stars, too. The Casino Association of New Jersey fought to legalize sports betting, but it was Donald Trump who got his quotes in the newspapers. Trump, who owned four Atlantic City casinos at the time and fought hard for sportsbooks, said the casino industry should “just close up” is legal sports betting was not legalized.
Tugging at the heart strings and the purse strings, Donald Trump said, “It’s vital to keeping your taxes low. It’s vital to the senior citizens. And it’s vital to putting the bookies out of business.”
Nicholas Ribis, The Casino Association’s chairman, spent $500,000 to lobby the state legislature and advertise on local networks. Ribis also said, “Sports betting is the single most important issue for the industry at this time. If it is not passed, we will never be able to compete.”
Chuck Haytaian Kills the Bill
The bill passed in the State Senate, but was held up in the State Assembly by Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian, a Republican from Warren. Haytaian sent the bill to the Assembly’s appropriations committee, which was chaired by current US House Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Morris). Freylinghuysen had famously called sports betting “bad public policy”, so the bill was not likely to pass out of committee. Haytaian declined to ask for a full vote before the Assembly, saying he only put up measures that were passed in committee.
To this day, many New Jersey Democrats believe Chuch Haytaian let the bill die in committee in order to help in the governor’s race. Republican challenger Christie Whitman was facing Democratic Gov. Jim Florio in what was expected to be a very close race. Under that theory, it is thought the GOP believed a sports betting vote would have brought out more urban voters, which could have changed the gubernatorial vote. Whitman defeated Florio by less than 30,000 votes in an election with low voter turnout.
Ray Lesniak says that the decision cost New Jersey sports gambling, while it cost Gov. Floria the governors mansion. Lesniak said, “This was a purposefully political decision. Chuck Haytaian was a political genius. In my opinion, it won the election for Whitman.”
Regardless of the reasons, the state legislature dealt Atlantic City a mortal blow by not approving sports gambling. Years later, this would become apparent when New York and Pennsylvania began building their own casinos. Without the edge sportsbooks would have given them, Atlantic City could not compete.
Lloyd Levenson, a lawyer for the gaming industry, said, “It was a terrible blow to the casinos. Congress gave us a golden opportunity.”
Post-PASPA Gaming History
Without legalized sports betting, Atlantic City has fallen far behind of its east coast competition. The Boardwalk is no longer special, so its revenues declined from $5.4 billion to $2.86 billion in only 7 years. Four of the city’s 12 casinos closed in 2015, while a fifth casino nearly closed.
Under those circumstances, Tuesday’s decision is a key moment. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals can overturn a 23 year old federal law and give Atlantic City casinos a second chance. If the panel which hears the case goes against New Jersey, though, some will say that the state lost its real opportunity back in 1993, when a politician made a call to help his party–not his state.