Gov. Chris Christie is taking sides in a nasty Democratic dispute over expanding casinos to northern New Jersey.
The Republican governor and presidential candidate intervened Friday in a standoff between Democratic leaders of the state Legislature, supporting Senate President Steve Sweeney's contention that an Assembly proposal for a statewide referendum lacks enough support to pass.
The Senate and Assembly bills differ on who could own the two new casinos and how much of their gambling tax revenue would go to compensate Atlantic City.
"It is disturbing that infighting within the Democratic Party over competing gaming bills may deprive the voters of the ability to consider this question in November," Christie said. "Inaction should not be an option. ... Delay puts the expansion of gaming in peril. That is not in the interests of anyone in New Jersey, north or south."
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto fired back at the governor, who has been out of the state much of the year while seeking the GOP presidential nomination.
"If Gov. Christie had spent time in New Jersey, he would understand the facts and that the Assembly bill is the best one for the entire state," Prieto said. "Gov. Christie is failing to support the free market system and competitive capitalism. That's somewhat surprising, considering his current focus."
The governor weighed in a few hours after Sweeney said the possibility of north Jersey casinos would be "dead" if a referendum bill did not pass Monday, on the final day of the Legislative session. Sweeney said there will not be enough votes in the next session to pass a north Jersey casino referendum bill because more votes will be needed — a three-fifths majority that he said has "no chance" of happening due to opposition from southern New Jersey lawmakers.
"I think it's done; I think it's over," Sweeney said. "The opportunity to have casinos in north Jersey will be lost. It's a shame."
Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural, who has offered to pay a 55 percent tax rate on winnings at a casino at his track, said he doesn't think Sweeney's bill can pass because gambling companies will campaign against it if they can't bid for complete ownership of one of the casinos.
Gural said a survey commissioned for his company and Hard Rock International, which would run the casino, found 83 percent of respondents oppose limiting the licenses to existing Atlantic City casino operators.
"I could make a deal with one of them, but Wynn and Sands and all the others will spend tons of money to defeat this if they can't bid," he told The Associated Press. "What a mess."
Sweeney's bill would require that both casinos be owned by existing Atlantic City casino operators, though he softened that stance to permit outside companies to partner with Atlantic City operators and own up to 49 percent of a new casino. The Assembly bill would only require one of the two to be owned by an existing Atlantic City operator.
Sweeney said backers of the Assembly bill want to clear the way for casino magnate Steve Wynn to get one of the two licenses. A spokesman for Wynn Las Vegas said he would be interested "If the right opportunity were created by the Legislature."
"It seems shortsighted to limit the options available for future development of the industry, given that some of the top tier resort companies, such as Wynn, are not operating in Atlantic City," said Wynn spokesman Michael Weaver.
Prieto accused Sweeney of "preening," and vowed that the Assembly will not pass the Senate bill on Monday.
Pressed on why the proposal could not be revived in ensuring years, Sweeney conceded that it could, but cautioned that New York plans to authorize additional casinos in New York City in a few years.
"I can't say it won't ever happen, but by 2018, New York will have approved a casino in Staten Island," Sweeney said. "It needs to be now because we have the opportunity now."