TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey voters are still in the dark about plans to build two new casinos in the northern part of the state, even after lawmakers tried Thursday to clarify key details three weeks before a statewide referendum on the issue.
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A state Assembly panel approved a non-binding resolution expressing "legislative intent" regarding the proposed construction of casinos near New York City.
But it gave no details, including where they would be built, at what rate they would be taxed, and how the resulting tax revenue would be allocated. Polling shows the question appears headed for defeat, and the two men who would build the casinos have cut off financial support for the ballot question, conceding it will likely lose.
"We are being told this resolution will clarify questions so the voters can make an informed decision," said Assemblyman Chris Brown, an Atlantic City-area Republican and one of the staunchest opponents of the ballot question that would amend the state Constitution to permit casino gambling outside the seaside gambling resort.
"We are telling people it's going to answer their questions, yet there is not one spot in the bill where it tells you where the casinos are going," he said. "There is no mention of what the tax rate is. This is simply deja vu all over again, the same recycled argument that you're not backing by any facts. There aren't any."
Assemblyman John McKeon, a north Jersey Democrat who supports expanding casinos to his part of the state, said he is frustrated that the ballot question that's going before the voters leaves so much unsettled.
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"It is rife with ambiguities," he said. "North Jersey casinos are coming, if not this time, then in two years, when we may get smart enough to say, 'It's going to be in the Meadowlands.'"
All the ballot question specifies is that "up to" two casinos would be built somewhere in northern New Jersey, at least 72 miles from Atlantic City, and that each must cost at least $1 billion to build.
Jeff Gural, operator of the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, where the NFL's New York Jets and Giants play, is partnered with Hard Rock International to add a casino at the track. And Reebok footwear magnate Paul Fireman proposes a $5 billion casino resort in Jersey City.
The resolution sponsored by Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a north Jersey Democrat, sought to express the intent of the Legislature in putting the question on the ballot.
His measure says the Legislature intends to provide funding for Atlantic City, senior citizens, local governments and the horse racing industry. But it does not specify what rate the casinos would be taxed at or how the money would be allocated among potential recipients. It only says the rate would be "considerably higher" than the 8 percent Atlantic City's casinos now pay.
Ron Simoncini, a spokesman for NorthStarsNJ, which supports the referendum along with northern New Jersey business groups, praised Caputo for at least trying to clarify things.
"Ralph Caputo should be applauded for recognizing that without voters having confidence that the Legislature has a plan, it's going to be awfully hard for this to pass," he said. "It may be too late, but clearly the Legislature is sincere in wanting to recapture our gaming revenue that's going to other states, and distributing the benefits equally."
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