TRENTON - Some New Jersey lawmakers are busy preparing for the day they expect casino gambling to expand to the Meadowlands.
A state Assembly committee on Thursday advanced a bill that would create a commission to study expanding casino gambling to East Rutherford.
Similar proposals have been hotly opposed by South Jersey lawmakers, who fear that would decimate the struggling Atlantic City casinos. Casinos in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York state have cut deeply into Atlantic City's casino business, which fell from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006 to what will likely be less than $3 billion this year.
"Right now we are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year being siphoned off to other places," said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D., Essex). "If this continues, there will be no market to go to."
The state is halfway through a five-year period of incentives and improvements that Gov. Christie instituted to help Atlantic City before considering ending the resort's exclusive right to host casinos.
They included creation of a tourism district to bring additional safety and cleanliness resources and a casino-funded $30 million annual program to market Atlantic City.
Under the legislation, a 13-member panel would evaluate how well those reforms are working and would consider the prospect of a casino in Bergen County. It would issue a report within a year.
Among those supporting the plan are leaders of New Jersey's horse racing industry, who have long wanted the slot machines and table games that so-called "racinos" in neighboring states have.
The Casino Association of New Jersey, the Atlantic City casinos' trade association, opposes the bill. Its president, Tony Rodio, who is president of the Tropicana Casino & Resort, said expanding casinos beyond Atlantic City would be "potentially catastrophic" for the seaside resort, which has invested $6 billion in itself over the last decade.
Caputo said the legislature needs to start evaluating the Atlantic City reforms now, and not wait until five years have passed.
The bill now goes to the full Assembly for consideration.