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Measures on pensions, North Jersey casinos advance

TRENTON - On a day packed with activity near the end of the session, New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday advanced a series of proposed constitutional amendments, including one to require payments into the state pension system, and another to permit casinos outside Atlantic City.

TRENTON - On a day packed with activity near the end of the session, New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday advanced a series of proposed constitutional amendments, including one to require payments into the state pension system, and another to permit casinos outside Atlantic City.

The measures cleared committees in the Assembly and Senate, but need other approvals before they could land on the 2016 ballot. In the case of expanded casino gambling, lawmakers in the two chambers have yet to reach consensus on a proposal.

Some of the ballot measures have been modified since their introduction.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney's proposal to make pension payments a constitutional requirement would now force the state to pay $2.4 billion into the system in fiscal year 2018 - down from $3 billion in his original proposal.

The proposal, advanced by Democrats on the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Thursday, would still increase payments into the long-underfunded pension system through fiscal year 2022, when the annual payment would reach between $5.5 billion and $5.6 billion, a Sweeney aide said.

The state's total budget this year is about $34 billion. Sweeney (D., Gloucester) argues that the plan - which would also require the state to make quarterly pension payments - is necessary to ensure funding for the system, after Gov. Christie backtracked on a 2011 law that required the state to make escalating contributions.

Opponents, including a Democratic member of a pension and health benefits commission appointed by Christie, argue that the plan could dangerously restrict the state budget.

Committees in the Senate and Assembly also advanced proposals Thursday to amend the constitution to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City, though the chambers have not reached agreement on the specifics of the ballot measure.

Each of the proposed measures would allow two casinos in separate counties a certain distance from Atlantic City, the Shore resort still reeling from a wave of casino closures last year. Both would dedicate a portion of the revenue the state generated from the new casinos to Atlantic City.

But the measures differ in how much revenue would be devoted to Atlantic City, who would be permitted to run the North Jersey casinos, and even how far they would have to be located from Atlantic City.

The Senate Budget Committee advanced a proposal by Sweeney and Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) that specifies the casinos would have to be at least 72 miles from Atlantic City. That's a change from the measure Sweeney's office announced last week, which said new casinos would have to be at least 75 miles away.

A person familiar with the matter said the change would include more of Middlesex County in the range of possible locations, and net more support from lawmakers.

In the Assembly, the judiciary committee released a different measure.

The sponsor of that proposal, Ralph Caputo (D., Essex), argued that if the state did not expand gambling, it would lose more money to casinos in other states.

"Do we continue to see this business model collapse, or do we do something about it?" he said during Thursday's committee hearing.

Atlantic City officials and business leaders oppose expanding gambling, which they say would cannibalize their market and imperil the local economy.

"If we change the game right now, it's going to create a more unstable environment," Joe Kelly of the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce told Assembly lawmakers Thursday.

Assemblyman Chris Brown (R., Atlantic) accused Caputo of pushing the amendment without proper study: "You're killing Atlantic City. You're killing it."

Caputo said he did not need a study to see the decline of the casino industry in Atlantic City, and said it was appropriate to put the question to voters: "The people don't read these studies. They're going to listen to our positions."

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R., Bergen) questioned the logic of dedicating funding through the constitution for Atlantic City: "What happens if Atlantic City becomes financially stable?"

"We could always go back and put another constitutional amendment on it," Caputo said. "It's the best we could do at this time."

The differences between the Senate and Assembly proposals include restrictions on who could operate the new casinos. The Senate version would require both new operators to already have a license for a casino in New Jersey, or be linked with a current license-holder; the Assembly version would restrict just one of the operators.

If lawmakers want to compromise on the competing proposals, a Senate aide said, they would need to do so by early next week to hold a vote in the current session, which ends in January.

Constitutional amendments must sit for 20 days after clearing a committee before they can go before the full legislature for a vote. They do not require the governor's approval.

To get on the 2016 ballot, an amendment would have to gain a three-fifths majority in each house or pass with simple majorities in both houses in two legislative years.

Other amendments advanced by the Assembly Judiciary Committee Thursday included a proposal to expand the state's redistricting commission. The amendment would increase the commission's membership from 10 to 13 and require the commission to certify at least 25 percent of the districts as competitive.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D., Essex), the committee chairman and a sponsor of the measure, said the approach would take into account the Democratic-Republican split in statewide elections over 10 years. To the argument that this would favor Democrats, McKeon pointed to Republican Christie's 2013 reelection with more than 60 percent of the vote and said, "Who knows who it's going to favor?"

Schepisi accused the committee of rushing the amendment, which was introduced Monday.

"To just kind of sneak this in as a last-minute thing when everybody's getting ready for Christmas, I find appalling," she said.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union) called it a "power and money grab" by Democrats.

Another amendment that advanced Thursday with bipartisan support would dedicate all revenue from the motor fuels tax to the nearly depleted Transportation Trust Fund. The measure would not increase the gas tax - among the lowest in the nation - but Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) called it a "commonsense first step" in finding a transportation funding solution.



Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.