Public Question: Should the State Gamble on Sports Betting?

John Burton

ON TUESDAY, voters will have a chance to roll the dice whether a referendum to allow sports betting at the state’s racetracks and casinos is a winner.
The only question on the statewide ballot this year concerns a proposal to amend the state’s constitution to allow sports gambling.
The Eagleton Institute of Politics and Rutgers University last month conducted a poll on the issue that found a majority of voters supported the idea.
According to David Redlawsk, a Rutgers political science professor and Eagleton’s poll director, as many as 58 percent of the state’s likely voters supported the idea. The largest number of those supporting it were those who live in the shore counties of Monmouth, Ocean and Atlantic—by about three-quarters–Redlawsk said, with registered Republicans supporting it by an estimated 64 percent, Redlawsk’s polling data indicated.
One shore county resident—and Republican—who supports the initiative is Oceanport Borough Council President Joseph Irace.
Oceanport is home to the Monmouth Park thoroughbred horse racetrack. The park has experienced a decrease in attendance in recent years and faces increasing competition from tracks in neighboring states where casino gambling has been allowed.
Tracks in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York now offer slot machines in addition to betting on the ponies.
NJ state legislators have opposed the idea of following suit, said Irace. But Irace and Oceanport’s mayor and borough council majority recently passed a resolution supporting the measure.
If it receives final approval, casino visitors in New Jersey could bet on professional sports and horse races while racetrack attendees could bet on other sports as well as horse racing.
Billions of dollars are spent each year on illegal sports betting, Irace argued. “So if New Jersey can do it, regulate it, tax it the state can get some money out of it,” and it would make tracks like Monmouth Park more competitive as some of that money would be used to bolster race purses, thus attracting higher profile horses and those attendees who would like to see those horses compete; and it would help the flagging but storied Monmouth County tradition of horse breeding industry, Irace said.
And by extension, benefit his community, which is already facing the economic challenge posed by the recent closing of the Fort Monmouth military installation and the track’s slipping popularity, he said.
But should the voters agree with Irace’s take on Tuesday, that in no way makes this a sure thing. This would be just the first step, which if it clears this hurdle, would have to move on to the state Legislature for it’s approval and then on to the Governor’s desk. Those approvals appear likely since the proposal has the support and sponsorship of state Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-20) and has been endorsed by Gov. Christie, Irace said.
The Governor’s office did not immediately respond to an inquiry on Thursday seeking the administration’s position on the question.
With those approvals, the state would have to “basically sue the federal government,” which prohibits sports betting except for in a few states, such as Nevada. But given that it is allowed elsewhere, New Jersey could use that argument effectively, Irace said.
But we are talking about expanding gambling or as it has become labeled “gaming.” And according to Donald Weinbaum, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, this state has an estimated 350,000 compulsive gamblers.
Weinbaum said the council remains neutral on gambling expansion legislation. But, Weinbaum stressed, “This type of initiative to expand gambling opportunities is going to end up increasing the scope of the problem of gambling.”
So far, Weinbaum went on to point out, there hasn’t been any public discussion about how state officials would seek to address that given there aren’t enough resources to help the already 350,000 addicts.
“We’re hoping should this come to pass, the Legislature and the Governor will do the right thing,” he said. “and try to make sure there are protections and resources for those who end up crossing the line and get in over their heads.”