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NJ eyes panel to study casino at Meadowlands

New Jersey wants to study whether to expand casino gambling to the Meadowlands

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- The head of a New Jersey Assembly panel pushing for a study of whether casino gambling should be expanded to the Meadowlands sports complex had harsh words Thursday for Atlantic City, saying casino executives had drained profits from the seaside resort for decades and now want the state to rescue them because the industry has soured.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, an Essex County Democrat, wants to create a committee to study expanding casino gambling beyond Atlantic City, most likely to the Meadowlands in East Rutherford.

At a hearing at which the proposal was discussed but not voted on, Caputo insisted he does not want to hurt Atlantic City. But he and others on the committee said the time was right to evaluate a package of incentives Gov. Chris Christie shepherded through the Legislature three years ago.

The governor has said he will give Atlantic City five years to show serious signs of improvement before he will consider asking voters to approve casinos elsewhere in the state. That clock started ticking with the February 2011 enactment of a state-administered tourism district in Atlantic City.

"No one here wants to do any damage to Atlantic City," Caputo said. "We don't want to destroy an industry. They can do that themselves. They don't need your help or my help.

"They don't give one damn about anything but themselves," he said. "All they did was take money from that city. Now that the market is challenged, it's up to us to try to assist. But that doesn't mean we can't look at it honestly."

Christie's Atlantic City plan included the tourism district, which was designed to bring additional safety and cleanliness resources; relief from some costly regulations for casinos; and a casino-funded $30 million annual program to market Atlantic City.

Under Caputo's bill, a 13-member panel would evaluate how well those reforms are working and would consider the future prospect of a casino in Bergen County. It would issue a report within a year.

Casino gambling expansion proposals have been hotly opposed by southern New Jersey lawmakers who fear it would destroy the already-struggling Atlantic City casino market.

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, whose district includes Atlantic City, opposes the study commission — at least right now.

"When the tourism district was created, both the Legislature and the governor made a solemn commitment to Atlantic City," he said. "To go back on your word to the people of Atlantic County before the five-year waiting period ends is wrong. I intend to make sure that Atlantic City gets what this Legislature promised it — the time and money needed to help restore the city to the tourism and gaming destination that it once was. We can get there, but we must give our efforts a chance to succeed."

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle, who represents an area near the Meadowlands, estimated 400,000 people visited Bergen County for the Super Bowl earlier this month, but did little in New Jersey other than attend the game before returning to New York City.

"If we had a casino in the Meadowlands, would we have kept those visitors?" she asked. "Would they have spent their travel dollars in this state? We don't know, because gaming in the Meadowlands has never been seriously considered. This conversation needs to start."

Caputo said his initial opinion is that the Atlantic City reform plan is not going well.

"On the surface it doesn't look like it," he said. "We can't bury our heads in the sand and say Atlantic City is going to be fine. Atlantic City is not going to be fine; it's not going to come back to its original form."

He said the bill should be voted on by the Assembly Tourism and Gaming Committee within the next month, and sent to the full Assembly after that. The bill passed the Assembly last year, but died without being considered in the Senate.


Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC