Gambling on Gambling

Slots at the racetracks would generate needed revenue.

AP Photo/Curt Hudson.

Something dramatic has to be done to save Atlantic City. In the past few years, casino revenues have dropped 25 percent. About 12,000 jobs have been lost. So some doubling down is required if AC is ever to become a more family-oriented entertainment destination as opposed to a place where most visitors hit the tables or the slots and head right home.

At the same time, New Jersey’s racetracks are dying. It’s no secret that the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority has blown it big time. The NJSEA keeps begging for state money to keep the tracks alive and then resists opening its books—mainly because they are a “quasi” government agency. That’s absurd.

Governor Chris Christie’s plan to have the state take over Atlantic City’s gaming and entertainment district doesn’t seem to sit well with voters, even though the idea is worth trying. Those same voters in a recent Quinnipiac University poll said they want the state to stop its annual $30 million subsidy of horse racing. But remember, that $30 million comes from casino revenues as part of a deal to keep slot machines out of the racetracks.

These days, that looks like a bad deal; it’s got to change. I’ve never been a fan of state-sponsored gambling. Don’t get me wrong—I like to bet on horses occasionally and I love blackjack. But relying on creating more games of chance to generate revenue for the state is a slippery slope and disproportionately hurts those who can least afford it. However, in this case, I see no other viable option than to allow slot machines at New Jersey racetracks—and use the new revenue to help AC and bolster the tracks.

Senator Ray Lesniak (D-Union) has sponsored legislation to do just that and to allow casinos to run poker games over the Internet. In an op-ed piece in the Star-Ledger, Lesniak—whose efforts have been stifled by Atlantic City casino interests, his South Jersey Senate colleagues, and others who promote the status quo—wrote: “The giant step that should also be taken is to allow slots at the Meadowlands so we can keep these gambling revenues in New Jersey. Most of the gaming dollars that slots at the Meadowlands would attract would not otherwise be spent in Atlantic City, but across the border in casinos and racinos in neighboring states.”

The gambling landscape has changed dramatically on the East Coast. All three of our adjacent states—New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware—have greatly expanded their gambling activity. Lots of New Jerseyans’ money is being lost in those states; Lesniak puts the figure at about $5 billion. Spent here, that money could generate significant revenues to support the state’s gambling institutions. Thousands of jobs are on the line in the casinos and at the racetracks, and no one wants to see those workers on unemployment in these difficult economic times.

The North-South split in New Jersey is a problem on many levels. But when it comes to the gambling issue, it’s at its worst. South Jersey legislators seem willing to fight to the death to make sure slot machines are not allowed in the state’s racetracks—Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands Racetrack—which are north of AC. And North Jersey legislators don’t seem to see the value of investing in dramatically improving the situation in Atlantic City.

But Atlantic City’s problems are New Jersey’s problems. Its image affects the state’s image. If the situation doesn’t improve there, we all get hurt. The same is true of the racetracks. And if allowing slot machines is one way to keep the tracks viable, how can we continue to oppose it?

The current gambling equation is not working. Something dramatic is required, or we should just fold up our tents and let the casinos close and the racetracks die. If we want to be in the game, we’ve got to play our best hand, and to date, we haven’t even been close. So let’s deal the cards and see what comes up.

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