TRENTON — The Legislature on Thursday approved sports betting at casinos and racetracks, a landmark moment for a state that fought for six years to legalize sports gambling.
Sports books could open within days if operators take advantage of a last-minute addition to the legislation that allows them to start taking bets before the governor signs it.
The bill's passage came less than three weeks after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of New Jersey's challenge to the federal ban on sports betting, clearing the way for states to allow legalize gambling on professional, college, and amateur sporting events. One more step — a signature from the governor — will make Garden State sports betting official.
"We as a state have been the leaders in the nation of making this happen," said Deputy Assembly Majority Leader Eric Houghtaling (D., Monmouth) before moving to vote on the bill. "It's just wonderful the things that can be done here with this — strengthening the casinos that we have here in our state, strengthening the tracks that we have here in our state that are struggling, and all the jobs that go along with that."
Hoping to prop up Atlantic City, New Jersey voters approved a sports-gambling law in 2012, but the state's attempts at legalizing bets were met with legal challenges from the professional sports leagues and the NCAA. Now, officials hope to rake in tax revenue and revive casinos and racetracks, but with no guarantee that sports wagering will be as lucrative as hoped. Competition in neighboring states is already heating up: Books have opened in neighboring Delaware and rollouts are underway in Pennsylvania and New York.
New Jersey's bill passed unanimously in both the Senate and Assembly, to applause from legislators. Calling the measure "historic," lawmakers lauded the benefit they expect sports betting to have for casinos and the state, and made nods to the years and millions spent getting there.
"This is an important step because it takes this industry operating in the shadows, moves it into the economy," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester).
The amendment eliminating a provision that had prohibited casinos and racetracks from taking sports bets before the law was signed means books could open as soon as Friday. But operators did not indicate they would, and those hoping to wager online will have to wait: Once the law is signed, a 30-day period must elapse before online sports gambling can begin.
"Senator, we betting tomorrow?" Senate President Stephen Sweeney asked fellow Democrat Vin Gopal of Monmouth County, who was accompanied to the vote by Dennis Drazin, CEO and chairman of Darby Development LLC, which operates Monmouth Park Racetrack. But Drazin said he would wait for the go-ahead from Murphy.
"If the governor was to call me up and say, 'Look, Dennis, we're not going to sign the bill right away, but you have my blessing to open,' we'll open tomorrow," Drazin told reporters. "If the governor says, 'I want you to wait a couple of days so I can review the bill and get it signed,' then I'm going to wait for him to do that."
Murphy has indicated he may not rush to sign it this week, although he said he shared lawmakers' desire to act quickly.
"They want to see it happen sooner than later. We do too, but we want to do it right," Murphy said Tuesday.
The Supreme Court's lifting of the federal ban on sports wagering last month sent shockwaves through the estimated $150 billion U.S. gaming industry. Sports betting is looked upon by officials in many states as a vehicle for raising revenue. States across the country are examining legalization, with several setting the wheels in motion. In Atlantic City, the mayor has predicted sports wagering could bring in millions in new revenue.
The state's Office of Legislative Services estimates that sports betting could generate as much as $17 million in tax revenue its first full year, a modest amount in the context of a $37 billion state budget.
New Jersey would become the second state to authorize sports betting since the Supreme Court decision; Delaware on Tuesday became the first. Pennsylvania has legislation in place allowing wagering, but the Gaming Control Board must put forth regulations, currently in progress, before it can begin.
Earlier this week, representatives from professional sports leagues — which had fought New Jersey's plan before the Supreme Court — asked lawmakers for a cut of the profits. Legislators rejected their pleas, with one even suggesting the leagues pay New Jersey $9 million in restitution for their legal fees.
"It's unimaginable that the sports leagues, after fighting us to block sports wagering, want to make the fast buck & to get something for nothing," Sweeney tweeted on Tuesday. "The Senate will vote on the sports wagering bill on Thurs. that doesn't include so called integrity fees. #nointegrityfee".
The bill allows for casinos and racetracks to conduct betting, and for casino businesses to operate sports pools online. It has a carve-out for the erstwhile Garden State Park racetrack in Cherry Hill, defined as a "former racetrack" in the bill, that would allow the owners of the site, now a retail and residential development, to open a parlor.
But the Golden Nugget casino in Atlantic City, whose owner, Tilman Fertitta, bought the Houston Rockets for $2.2 billion last year, may not be able to take bets on NBA games under a provision aimed at avoiding conflicts of interest.
Atlantic City officials have lauded sports betting as a potential savior for the city's economy. Revenue from wagering in casinos would go to the state's casino revenue fund, with a partial amount going to Atlantic City's marketing program; funds from racetrack betting would go to the state general fund. All in-person revenue would be taxed at 8.5 percent, with internet wagering revenue taxed at 13 percent.