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(TRENTON) — Assembly Democratic legislation asking voters to help pave the way for sports wagering at Atlantic City casinos and New Jersey racetracks was advanced Thursday by an Assembly panel.

“Sports betting already exists in New Jersey, but only the criminals are enjoying the profits,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester/Cumberland/Salem), chairman of the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee that advanced the bill. “Legal, carefully regulated sports wagering would bolster both Atlantic City and the state. New Jersey should go all-in.”

The sponsors noted Las Vegas saw about $100 million in wagering on this year’s Super Bowl, while Atlantic City saw no such activity on professional football’s biggest day.

“There are multiple dividends for New Jersey if sports gambling were to be provided at Atlantic City’s casinos,” said Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Cumberland/Atlantic/Cape May). “Atlantic City’s casinos again lost out as bettors flocked to Las Vegas.”

“We need to ensure Atlantic City stays on the cutting edge and has a competitive advantage against the new wave of gambling offerings in other states,” said Assemblyman Matt Milam (D-Cumberland/Atlantic/Cape May).

The bill (ACR-98) would ask voters to amend the state Constitution to authorize the Legislature to enact laws allowing sports wagering at casinos in Atlantic City and at racetracks.

Under the measure, wagers would be allowed to be placed at a casino or racetrack on the results of professional, college or amateur sport or athletic events.

Wagers would be prohibited on college games that take place in New Jersey or involve a New Jersey college team, regardless of where the game takes place.

“Ever since its inception, Atlantic City’s casinos have scored big for taxpayers, senior citizens and residents with disabilities,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden). “Now, aggressive marketing campaigns from out-of-state gaming interests have become a real and present danger to Atlantic City. With one of the state’s most important industries in the crosshairs, it’s imperative that we try to seize this unique opportunity.”

The lawmakers said the availability of legalized sports betting also would counteract illegal sports wagering enterprises that help finance other criminal activities in the state.

In 2007, for instance, the state announced the break-up of a $22 million illegal sports-betting ring operated out of a poker room at an Atlantic City casino. Among the 23 individuals charged were four men with ties to organized crime.

“Sports fans put billions of dollars on the line every year, regardless of its legality,” said Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester/Camden). “A legal Atlantic City-based sports book would ensure bettors are not fleeced or put in harm’s way.”

In 1992, a federal law limiting sports gaming to Nevada was amended to give New Jersey and four other states an opportunity to approve sports betting, provided they acted prior to January 1, 1994.

But the former Republican-controlled Assembly failed to put the question before voters in the November 1993 general election, and the deadline passed.

As a result, Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana are the only states that legally can offer sports betting.

“With the growth of out-of-state competition, we should try to correct the mistake New Jersey made 17 years ago,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex). “Atlantic City needs to up the ante so it can remain the East Coast’s premier gaming destination.”

The legislators said New Jersey has decent odds for successfully challenging the federal law in court and having it ruled unconstitutional. They said the federal dictate infringes on states’ rights and that the constitutionality of the federal law remains untested.

Officials estimate that gamblers wager as much as $400 billion on sports nationally each year in the United States.

“If New Jersey could tap into even a fraction of the national sports book, the state would generate millions of dollars in new direct revenues and economic dividends from increased tourism,” said Greenwald. “It wouldn’t be a revenue avalanche, but the betting opportunity would certainly strengthen Atlantic City’s marketability and gambling hand.”

The assemblymen said the modest increase would help state programs that serve the elderly and people with disabilities.

“New Jersey needs to look to new ways to retain its edge in the increasingly competitive gaming industry,” said Burzichelli. “Legalized sports gaming could broaden Atlantic City’s appeal.”

“The least we can do is give Atlantic City the missing piece it needs to provide a complete gaming experience,” Moriarty said.

The bill now heads to the Assembly Speaker, who decides if and when to post it for a floor vote.

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