A proposal to expand casino gambling has put the latest pressure on New Jersey's north-south political divide, and the lines are drawn heading into the legislative session's last day Monday.
Votes are expected on differing Senate and Assembly bills that call for two new casinos in northern New Jersey and refer the question to a popular vote.
The expansion proposal pits fears of more casino closings and massive job losses in the Atlantic City area against the prospect of new jobs and money in the Bergen County Meadowlands and in Hudson County, where the proposed casinos might be built.
The state Constitution limits casinos to Atlantic City, and the resort's monopoly on casinos has been zealously guarded by southern lawmakers and their allies.
But nine years of declining casino revenue and mounting job losses have convinced many state lawmakers it's time to locate casinos in the suburbs just outside New York City.
In 2006, Atlantic City's casinos won $5.2 billion from gamblers; year-end 2015 figures due out next week could show the number's fallen to around $2.5 billion.
"How is it that I, a senator from south Jersey, am fighting to bring casinos to north Jersey?" asked state Senate President Steve Sweeney, who lives in Gloucester County and who for years rejected talk of north Jersey casinos. "I come from a part of the state that's not very happy with me right now."
But Sweeney, a likely Democratic candidate for governor next year, says expanding casinos will help the entire state. Hefty tax subsidies from the new casinos' winnings will help compensate Atlantic City for the loss of its monopoly, and the rest of the taxes will help programs and tax relief for seniors and the disabled statewide, he says.
Sweeney promises his bill will pass the Senate on Monday. The Assembly so far has refused to give up its bill and embrace Sweeney's, especially after Republican Gov. Chris Christie sided with the Senate president and called for his measure to be adopted.
Sweeney has said the issue of north Jersey casinos will be "dead" if a bill isn't passed Monday because trying to get it passed in the next session will require additional votes that he predicted won't be there.
The impact of casinos in northern New Jersey cannot be overstated on Atlantic City, which suffered a devastating 2014 in which four of its 12 casinos went out of business. Analysts and many elected officials expect additional casinos to close when faced with in-state competition; three are already in bankruptcy.
Supporters of north Jersey casinos say as many as 12,000 new jobs could be created in their region. More importantly, they say, gambling revenue that is now leaving the state to casinos in Yonkers and Queens, New York; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and other destinations could be recaptured.
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Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, whose city could host one of the casinos, says host communities should be compensated for the added expense the gambling halls would bring. Fulop, a possible challenger to Sweeney for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, supports the Assembly bill that would let a company that does not currently own an Atlantic City casino own one of the new casinos.
Sweeney's plan would require both new casinos be owned by existing Atlantic City operators.
Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown, of the Atlantic City area, says the state owes Atlantic City some consideration and help in return for the millions in gambling taxes its casinos sent to the state for 38 years. But Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a north Jersey Democrat, says gamblers in his region have already voted with their wallets.
"The customers that have left our state are not going to Atlantic City," he said. "They don't get on a bus because they love saltwater taffy. They want a game, preferably 15, 20 minutes away."