New Jersey's top elected Democrat has introduced legislation to expand gambling beyond Atlantic City, with a proposal that could go before voters next year.
The proposal, released Friday by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), would allow two casinos in separate counties in towns at least 75 miles from Atlantic City, which is still reeling from a wave of casino closures last year.
Under Sweeney's proposal, a little less than half of the revenue netted by the state from the new casinos would go toward the "recovery, stabilization or improvement" of Atlantic City, with other revenue going toward programs for seniors, the disabled, and "other such purposes as the Legislature provides by law." After 15 years, the share of revenue going to Atlantic City would decline.
Sweeney said in a statement that the expansion was necessary to "revitalize" the casino industry in New Jersey, "so that we can compete with neighboring states, generate the revenue needed to revive Atlantic City, and contribute to economic growth."
His proposal was denounced by officials representing Atlantic City, who said added competition would hurt the beleaguered Shore resort.
Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic) said the proposal would be "disastrous for our local economy." Assemblyman Chris Brown (R., Atlantic) said it would put "thousands more of our local middle-class families out of work."
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, likened the proposal to placing four Dunkin' Donuts stores at one intersection.
"It will be impossible for all four businesses to survive," he said. "Sure, you can say that each Dunkin' Donuts store is more than 100 feet away from each other, but that doesn't negate the fact that it is an oversaturation of Dunkin' Donuts."
With its dense population, North Jersey is "a healthy, robust market" for two casinos, "even though this area is becoming increasingly saturated," said Alex Bumazhny, gaming analyst for Fitch Ratings.
But he said new casinos would create "significant pressure in Atlantic City," which has faced increased competition from casinos in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. While Atlantic City has started to stabilize after four casinos closed in 2014, Bumazhny said, adding casinos in the northern part of the state "could result in further closures."
The proposal "potentially could be neutral for Atlantic City," depending on the revenue directed there, Bumazhny said. "But for casinos themselves in Atlantic City, it's definitely a negative."
A spokesman for Sweeney said he intended to hold a vote on the proposed constitutional amendment during the current legislative session, which ends in January. If the measure garnered a three-fifths majority in both houses - or if it passed twice in two legislative years - it could go on the ballot in 2016.
Ballot measures do not require Gov. Christie's approval. The Republican governor has said he favors expanding gambling to North Jersey. His office did not respond to a request for comment Friday on Sweeney's proposal.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) on Friday described the proposal as part of "an ongoing discussion."
"The Assembly may well have its own ideas about how best to bring gaming to North Jersey, stabilize Atlantic City, and support programs for senior citizens and the disabled," Prieto said.
Lawmakers in North Jersey and other areas outside Atlantic City have been pushing for expanded gambling. One proposal that didn't advance this year would have allowed three casinos to be located in Essex, Hudson and Bergen Counties.
Sweeney's proposal does not specify where the casinos would go; locations would be determined through legislation.
For Sweeney, who is expected to run for governor in 2017, the possibility of casinos in a variety of counties "is a great negotiating tool," said Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University.
"This is not about economics; it's about politics," he said.
Trade unions voiced support Friday for Sweeney's proposal, which "will provide a real boost to trade workers and will be a forceful benefit to the state's economy," said William T. Mullen, president of the New Jersey State Building and Construction Trades Council. The union has urged Sweeney to run for governor.
Public opinion, however, could pose a hurdle. A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll in June found 56 percent of New Jersey adults opposed to opening casinos outside Atlantic City and 37 percent in favor.
The Casino Association of New Jersey said Friday that it opposed Sweeney's proposal. "We do not believe that North Jersey casinos are a prudent option to help" protect the interests of Atlantic City, the association said in a statement. "The last thing this community needs is more competition from within our own state's borders."
Some were more optimistic.
"I don't know that they have an ocean up there, OK?" said Glenn Straub, the Florida developer who bought the shuttered Revel casino and plans to reopen it. "We have nostalgia. They don't have any nostalgia."