New Jersey Politicians Reach Compromise on North Jersey Casino Referendum
Political leaders have agreed upon a casino referendum bill, after weeks of infighting between Democratic leaders in the state. Republican Governor Chris Christie appeared with State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and General Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto on Monday at a press conference to announce their compromise plan.
During his press conference at the statehouse, Gov. Christie characterized the new deal as a compromise. Saying he was willing to support either version of the bill, Christie reiterated it was the need for a vote on the plan which was most important.
Christie said, “Nobody here is getting exactly what they wanted or what they asked for. The most important thing in my view was to give voters the opportunity.”
Outside observers are likely to say Vincent Prieto compromised more than the other legislator in the negotiation, Steve Sweeney. Sweeney’s plan to limit outside casino companies to a 49% stake (at most) in North Jersey developments eventually was the vision which prevailed.
Gov. Chris Christie Supported the Sweeney Plan
Prior to the agreement, Gov. Chris Christie was having a war of words with New Jersey General Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto over competing casino bills in the state legislature. Gov. Christie recently spoke out on behalf of a bill championed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, which was competing with Prieto’s own bill.
Each plan had been on the table for the past month, since it was decided a vote would take place in November 2016 to decide whether New Jersey would license casinos outside Atlantic City. The competing plans were quite similar, except in one key way. Both called for a November referendum on whether casinos should be built outside Atlantic City, in North Jersey. Both plans stipulated the state would have two new licensed casinos somewhere in North Jersey. Each plan called for a licensing process for one of the casinos which would allow current New Jersey license holders only.
Sweeney vs. Prieto
It was the stipulations for the second North Jersey casino which has caused all of the controversy. In Sweeney’s plan, the second casino would be licensed in the same way as the first — with only current Atlantic City casino companies and Jersey racetrack owners able to apply for licenses. In Prieto’s bill, the second casino license would be open to any legitimate casino company in the world. Other provisions are different (such as taxation), but the key difference is who gets to apply for a license.
Chris Christie’s Presidential Campaign
For the past month, Chris Christie had been on the presidential campaign trail, so he had not weighed-in on the measures. Christie is one of 12 candidates still vying for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. In 3 weeks, the first nominating election takes place: the Iowa Caucuses. After Iowa, most weeks throughout the late winter and spring will contain one or more political primary. If a candidate collects more than half of the delegates, they win the GOP’s nomination. If they cannot capture enough delegates, the decision goes to the Republican’s convention in late-August. These days, that seldom happens.
With such a key vote so near, Gov. Christie has had little time to discuss New Jersey politics. Legislative rules were forcing a down-to-the-wire negotation on the competing plans. The North Jersey casino plan was pivotal enough that Christie recently gave his thoughts.
Gov. Christie used his statement on Friday to take a shot at New Jersey Democrats, who long have been his chief political opponents. Christie said, “It is disturbing that infighting within the Democratic Party over competing gaming bills may deprive the voters of the ability to consider this question in November. Inaction should not be an option….Delay puts the expansion of gaming in peril. That is not in the interests of anyone in New Jersey, north or south.”
Vincent Prieto Criticizes the Governor
In reply, Vincent Prieto fulfilled the time-honored tradition of criticizing an official who campaigns for another job while still in office — he decried Christie’s lack of attention to his role as New Jersey governor. Prieto said, “If Gov. Christie had spent time in New Jersey, he would understand the facts and that the Assembly bill is the best one for the entire state. Gov. Christie is failing to support the free market system and competitive capitalism. That’s somewhat surprising, considering his current focus.”
Monday Deadline Was Looming
Monday was a deadline to settle on a plan. Monday is the end of the legislative session, when a window of opportunity would have closed for getting statewide votes on the November ballot. If the Monday deadline passed without a vote, then it would have required a three-fifths vote to schedule the referendum in a later session. Because of opposition from South Jersey Democrats who want to maintain Atlantic City’s casino monopoly, Stephen Sweeney said any later bill would “dead” on arrival in the legislature.
When asked last week about the chances of a referendum after the drop-dead date on Monday, Sweeney lamented, “I think it’s done; I think it’s over. The opportunity to have casinos in north Jersey will be lost. It’s a shame.”
Given the stakes involved, one had to think a last-minute effort would have been made to bring Sweeney and Prieto together — and that is what happened. The question was whether one of the Democratic leaders gives ground on their vision for the North Jersey casino industry. Despite attempts to hide the truth, Vincent Prieto eventually gave way in the negotiations. Both houses of the legislature will vote on the Stephen Sweeney proprosals, which freezes out operators who do not have a gaming license in New Jersey at the moment. The only concession Prieto got was an assurance that any operator would invest a minimum of $1 billion on its development, assuring that no one will build a slots-in-a-box style gaming venue.
Jeff Gural on North Jersey Licensing
For his part, Jeff Gural, who owns the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey and Tioga Downs in New York, believed the Vincent Prieto bill was the one more New Jerseyans support. He also believed it was the more realistic plan.
Jeff Gural and Hard Rock International (combined) would be one of the likely license applicants, through their horse racing license in the Meadowlands. Gural said the two have conducted research and found that 83% of residents in New Jersey believe the Prieto bill was the better option, because it allowed more applicants.
Says Adelson and Wynn Would Spend Money to Defeat Bill
When asked about his stance, Jeff Gural told the Associated Press that Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson wanted a shot at the North Jersey license — thus they supported the Prieto bill. He said Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands would oppose any bill which froze them out, but he could make an arrangement with them on a development, if they were amenable. He doesn’t know that they would be.
Gural added, “I could make a deal with one of them, but Wynn and Sands and all the others will spend tons of money to defeat this if they can’t bid. What a mess.”
Now, it’s time to see if Jeff Gural will be able to make that deal with Adelson or Wynn, who would be forced to be 49% owners, at most.
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