ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — A New Jersey lawmaker who expects voters to reject a plan to expand casinos to the northern part of the state near New York City is eyeing other ways to get slot machines into the state’s racetracks — preferably ones that don’t involve asking the public for permission.
Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a northern New Jersey Democrat and former casino worker, told The Associated Press on Monday he will amend two bills he introduced this year to authorize video lottery terminals — essentially slot machines — at state racetracks including the Meadowlands in East Rutherford and Monmouth Park in Oceanport.
It would be the latest attempt at a strategy that already has failed several times before and would rely on some semantic reclassification of what, exactly, a slot machine is — even though gamblers would notice no difference.
Two bills that have sat untouched since he introduced them in January would require voters to approve the change through a statewide referendum. But polls show voters are likely to defeat a different question already on the November ballot that would authorize two new casinos in the northern part of the state.
That referendum omits key information including where the casinos would go, what rate they would pay and most importantly, how the resulting tax revenue would be divvied up. If it loses, it cannot be reintroduced for at least two years.
Caputo said he would amend the bills to remove a requirement for a new referendum.
“This is a way to get back into the game,” Caputo said.
He plans to rely on a 1982 opinion by then-state Attorney General Irwin Kimmelman who advised that video lottery terminals would not require an amendment to the state Constitution, which currently limits casino gambling to Atlantic City. Caputo’s measure would seek to overturn a rule signed in 1983 by Republican Gov. Tom Kean that barred the state lottery from using such machines.
The machines would be authorized by the lottery but then overseen by state gambling regulators.
The state Attorney General’s office said it could not immediately comment on conflicting opinions that may have been issued since 1982.
The leader of a group lobbying against casino expansion said he was not surprised Caputo is looking for new ways to make it happen.
“What is shocking is that he has decided to completely ignore the will of the people, which will be expressed on election day as New Jersey voters support or oppose the casino expansion referendum,” said Bill Cortese, executive director of Trenton’s Bad Bet.
This has been tried before in New Jersey. A push in 2003 to add racetrack slots ended with the state requiring Atlantic City casinos to pay $30 million a year to the horse racing industry in return for keeping slot machines out.
In 2011, Republican Gov. Chris Christie ended those payments, redirecting the money to fund the Atlantic City Alliance, which promoted the resort to other parts of the country.
Caputo acknowledged that to the average customer, a video lottery terminal is indistinguishable from a slot machine.
“It’s the same thing,” he said. “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”
New Jersey’s horse racing industry has long wanted racetrack slots to compete with so-called “racinos” in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York.
Proceeds from the machines would be used to pay prizes to winners; cover the state’s expenses in administering the machines, and provide 18 percent of revenues to a fund for the horse racing industry, to be administered by the New Jersey Racing Commission.
Of the horse fund money, 83.4 percent would go to the Standardbred and thoroughbred racing industries to supplement track purses, with the rest going to supplement horse breeding and development programs.
The bill also would provide a quicker and less expensive way to expand casino gambling in New Jersey. The question on next month’s ballot requires each of the two new casinos to cost at least $1 billion apiece; Caputo’s measure could involve little more than installing banks of slots inside existing track buildings or easily built additions.
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