By Tom Ballard
Let’s face it: the Garden State has a gambling problem. Last month, the New Jersey Senate Budget Committee approved a proposal by a 9-2 vote that will lead to a referendum question being placed on the ballot in November’s general election, allowing New Jersey state citizens to determine whether or not to change the state constitution and expand the construction of casinos to the northern part of the state. While a powerhouse of elite Trenton politicians has come out in support of the expansion, the referendum, if passed, would be a disaster for the state and for Atlantic City in particular.
In 1976, New Jersey voters did two things: they gave Gerald Ford the state’s 17 electoral votes for president and passed a referendum permitting gambling in Atlantic City, according to an article from the Red Bank Register from Nov. 3, 1976. The state then amended Article III, Section VII, of its constitution to read, “it shall be lawful for the Legislature to authorize by law the establishment and operation… of gambling houses or casinos within the boundaries, as heretofore established, of the city of Atlantic City.”
In 1978, the Resorts International Hotel and Casino became the first casino to open its doors, according to a New York Daily News article from May 27, 1978. According to the same article, when the president of Resorts International saw the number of people waiting in line to gamble he turned to the chairman of the board and whispered, “we’re winners.”
Forty years later, there aren’t a lot of winners left in Atlantic City. According to an nj.com article from June 3, 2015, four of the city’s 12 casinos closed down in 2014, taking 8,000 jobs with them. The city currently finds itself struggling with state politicians such as Gov. Chris Christie and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, both of whom support the expansion of casinos in North Jersey. According to another nj.com article from Wednesday, Jan. 20, Christie rejected a trio of rescue bills which would have given aid to the crumbling gambling mecca.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian is pushing for the city to declare bankruptcy, but the move seems impossible considering that the state would have to approve of the city filing bankruptcy. Instead, Sweeney has, according to an nj.com article from Monday, Jan. 11, pushed for a state take-over of the city, which would give the state control over most of the city’s finances.
Despite the current drama going on in the once crowned-jewel of East Coast gambling, many lawmakers in Trenton who are just a stone’s throw away from the College continue to endorse the reckless and irresponsible idea of opening up casinos in North Jersey.
The truth is that it is no longer 1978. Casino gambling is no longer a specialty of the Garden State. With casinos in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, New Jersey is surrounded by states that attract tourists, and even Jersey residents, to their casinos.
Sweeney has argued that building casinos in the northern part of the state will keep people in-state.
“The people that won’t drive two-and-a-half hours to Atlantic City, and more, will drive to a casino in northern New Jersey,” Sweeney said in an nj.com article from Dec. 17, 2015.
The Senate president went on to say, “if you gamble in the Meadowlands, you earn comps that you can use in Atlantic City… it creates that linkage.”
But the point Sweeney seems to miss is that North Jersey residents are already patronizing casinos in Yonkers, N.Y., or casinos in northern Pennsylvania, and if casinos are built in the northern part of the state, they will be entering into an already competitive and risky market. Furthermore, three years ago, Christie signed into law legislation that allowed online gambling, making it no longer necessary to go to a casino in order to gamble, according to the New York Times. Now, state residents, or anybody who happens to be in the state, for that matter, have no need to support the communities that surround the casinos. Moreover, if the two planned casinos in North Jersey are approved and the state’s constitution gets amended, it will only take away more traffic, profits and jobs from Atlantic City, a place that can not afford to lose any of the three.
According to an nj.com article from Wednesday, Jan. 13. Moody’s Investor Services, a bond credit rating business that determines the stability of investments, released a report that echoed concern for expanding casinos in the northern part of the state.
“In our view, the additional competition will likely cause more casinos to close, which would be credit negative for Atlantic City,” the report read, adding that the idea of expanding casinos to North Jersey arrives at a time when there are eight new casinos expected to open in the northeast by 2018, including in Philadelphia, according to the same nj.com article.
It is time for state lawmakers to stop throwing the financial soundness of the state away on a gamble. We are in no place to bet on red when the state is already in the red. If this referendum passes, it will only increase congestion in an already competitive casino marketplace while we turn our backs to Atlantic City and the surrounding communities in the southern part of the state.
Forty years ago, Trenton politicians promised that casinos would help make the economy of the state stronger, and 40 years later, Atlantic City serves as the ultimate testimony to how wrong they were. Despite this, Trenton politicians continue to push for more and more gambling outlets in the state. If and when the referendum to approve expanding casinos to North Jersey appears on the ballot, we should be careful not to repeat history, we should be careful not to continue to inflict damage to Atlantic City and we should vote “no.”