A vote to allow legalized sports betting in New Jersey's casinos and racetracks through a public referendum was stalled Thursday in the state Assembly's Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee.
The opponent was not the National Football League, but the world's largest gambling company: Harrah's Entertainment Inc., according to a key lawmaker.
Assembly Bill 817, which would permit "in-person wagering at casinos on results of professional sports events, subject to voter approval," was held until June 17 for a committee vote. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill June 21.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), a supporter of sports betting who filed a lawsuit last year against the U.S. Justice Department to overturn a federal ban on sports wagering in all but four states, said the delay was a result of Harrah's Entertainment's quest for "more time to oppose it."
"I am really astonished at Harrah's that they would continue to fight against New Jersey's interests in order to protect their monopoly in Nevada on sports betting," Lesniak said after the committee adjourned. "They have no shame to openly fight against New Jersey and our needs for additional revenues for their own corporate greed."
A spokeswoman for Harrah's Entertainment denied Lesniak's accusations.
"Harrah's is absolutely not delaying a sports-betting bill in New Jersey," Marybel Batjer, vice president of public policy and communications, said in an e-mail from Las Vegas. "The entire New Jersey Casino Association opposes Internet and sports betting. The letter the association sent Tuesday to the Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee specifically addressed sports betting."
Batjer said the letter contended that without changing federal law that prohibits sports betting, a vote by New Jersey citizens is premature.
Harrah's Entertainment owns 52 casinos worldwide, employs more than 70,000 and had revenue of $8.9 billion in 2009. It owns nine casinos on the Vegas Strip and four properties in Atlantic City.
Sports betting is one of several gaming proposals on the table in Trenton to aid struggling Atlantic City. Figures released Thursday by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission showed the 11 Atlantic City casinos were down 9 percent in revenue for May compared with a year ago.
The casinos reported $319.7 million in revenue, compared with $351.3 million in May 2009. It was the lowest May revenue recorded since 1995. Every casino reported revenue declines, ranging from 4.9 percent at the Borgata to 20.9 percent at the Atlantic City Hilton.
Under the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, only Nevada, Montana, Oregon, and Delaware are permitted to offer some form of sports betting.
Las Vegas casinos have exclusivity on single-game wagering - the most profitable kind - that typically draws droves of patrons during high-profile sporting events, such as the Final Four and the Super Bowl.
Delaware was defeated last year in its effort to offer single-game wagering on NFL games. Strong opposition from the NFL, the three other professional sports leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association derailed its attempt.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled last fall that Delaware's three casinos could offer only multigame, or parlay, betting on NFL games, where a gambler needed to be correct on at least three parlay bets to win a wager. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the state's appeal last month to expand beyond parlay betting.
With Delaware's setbacks, Lesniak said, New Jersey was pinning its hopes on getting sports betting by putting the issue on the November ballot.
The federal ban would also have to be changed before sports betting could become a reality. Lesniak's lawsuit on that front remains pending.
"For Atlantic City and the entire state, it will give a much-needed boost to an industry that is really suffering right now," he said, "and quite frankly, will continue to struggle unless we get new forms of gambling going to attract new tourism."
But the staggering resort faces growing competition.
Harrington Raceway & Casino became the first venue in Delaware to offer table games in May. Delaware Park begins offering the games June 18 and Dover Downs on June 25.
The first of Pennsylvania's nine casinos will offer poker, blackjack, and the more profitable table gambling early next month.