The New Jersey Legislature approved a measure Monday that would legalize sports betting at casinos and racetracks in the state.
The vote was 35-2 in the Senate, and 73-0 in the Assembly. It now heads to Gov. Christie to sign into law.
The Assembly earlier also passed a bill, by a 74-0 vote, that would set up a pilot program to allow patrons at up to 12 bars or restaurants in North Jersey to place bets on horse races. The Senate approved it 34 -1 just before 10 p.m., and now heads to the governor's desk.
New Jersey residents overwhelmingly approved a ballot question that amended the state Constitution to allow sports betting at Atlantic City casinos and the state's racetracks in early November. The ballot question passed by a nearly 2-1 ratio.
Proponents of sports wagering contend that legislation legalizing sports betting was the next piece they needed before the state could fight to overturn the federal law, enacted in 1992, that prohibits wagering on sports in all but four states: Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Delaware.
After the federal law was enacted, any state that wanted sports betting had 18 months to get it grandfathered in. New Jersey failed to meet the deadline because a bill never made it out of committee in 1993.
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by a prominent New Jersey lawmaker last spring on the grounds that he had no standing to overturn the federal law, known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.
Las Vegas has had a monopoly since 1975 on single-game wagering, considered the most lucrative type of sports betting.
The professional sports leagues say they stand ready to fight any expansion of PASPA. The leagues and the courts quashed Delaware's effort two years ago to offer more than parlay bets on NFL games - which require a bettor to place bets on at least three games, and for all three to be right, to win the wager.
"We have a long-held unwavering opposition to gambling on NFL games," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "We have been an active proponent of federal and state legislation that prohibits the spread of legal sports gambling. We continue to support the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which became law in 1992 and prohibits states from operating a lottery or betting scheme based on pro or college games."
Stacey Osburn, spokeswoman for the National Athletic Collegiate Association, said:
"The NCAA opposes all forms of legal and illegal sports wagering on college sports. Sports wagering is a serious problem that threatens the well-being of student-athletes and the integrity of college sports."
Gov. Christie, who has publicly supported making sports betting legal in New Jersey, is expected to sign the legislation into law if it is adopted, as expected, by the Assembly. The bill would prohibit wagering on any college team based in the state or on any collegiate game being played in New Jersey.
Supporters say sports betting can pump at least $225 million annually into the Atlantic City casinos and racetracks, and boost tourism, especially on weekends, at the ailing Shore resort - much the same way it fills casinos, hotels, and restaurants in Las Vegas.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), the legislature's main proponent of sports wagering and who filed the original lawsuit two years ago to overturn PASPA, said the legislation "represents the latest step in ensuring that the will of the people of New Jersey is expressed."
"And that we're not going to sit back while Las Vegas and other gaming jurisdictions get all the benefits of an unfair and arbitrary ban on sports betting," he said. "This bill would correct a decades-old mistake, and would . . . create new jobs, incentivize new economic activity in a recovering gaming sector, and create new tax revenues for the state."
A recent national gambling study pegged sports betting as a $380 billion industry, with the bulk of the revenue going to illegal bookmakers.
But gaming legal experts say it will still take some time before residents start placing legal bets on the New York Giants or Philadelphia Eagles.
"Assuming the bill passes, and the governor signs off on it, legal hurdles requiring significant time to move through the courts continue to exist," said lawyer Stephen D. Schrier, head of the gaming practice at Blank Rome L.L.P. in Princeton and a former deputy attorney general at the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.
"The court process will take some time, many months, and possibly significantly longer than that," he said.
But, he said, "should New Jersey be successful in its court case regarding PASPA, it would be poised to implement sports betting very quickly because the law allowing it is already in place."
Barbara DeMarco, a lobbyist for the state's pari-mutuel interests, said "partnering betting on racing and betting on sports was a natural."
"Bringing a new, younger demographic into the state's racetracks is the goal," said DeMarco. ". . . Sports wagering will do this, thereby creating a new following for the sport of horse racing."