New Jersey isn't giving up in its fight to bring legalized Las Vegas-style sports betting to its struggling casinos and racetracks.
A meeting between counsel for Gov. Chris Christie and state officials is scheduled for Sept. 10. The parties will discuss options for moving forward with sports betting, while also complying with federal law. In August, Christie vetoed a bill that would have decriminalized sports betting at the state's casinos and racetracks. In announcing his veto, Christie wrote that he was "open to exploring legally sound ways to let the State's casinos and racetracks offer sports wagering," but he elected not to sign Senate Bill No. 2250.
State officials are eager to hear the potential legal avenues that Christie vaguely referenced in his veto and would prefer to develop legislation that the governor would support.
"[Christie's counsel] have suggested that the language in the bill repealed sections of our gaming regulations and statutes that went beyond what they thought was appropriate and necessary," New Jersey State Sen. Jennifer Beck said. "They also suggested that they think there is another way at this that is likely to be more successful in court."
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who sponsored Senate Bill 2250, is open-minded to hearing alternatives, but is prepared to attempt to override Christie's veto on Sept. 22. Gubernatorial overrides are rare; Christie has never had a veto overridden during his term.
"This is different, though," Lesniak told ESPN, "because the voters have spoken. Sixty-eight percent of voters supported sports betting. Normally, you don't get that in legislation that has been vetoed." In order to override the veto, Lesniak needs a two-thirds majority vote from the Senate and the Assembly. The vote is expected to take place shortly after 1 p.m. ET, Sept. 22, starting in the Senate. If the Senate votes to override the veto, Lesniak says the Assembly will follow suit.
"My chances aren't all that bad," he added.
Lesniak, a Democrat from Elizabeth, has been leading the state's sports betting efforts for years. In 2011, he sponsored a referendum that received overwhelming support from voters and was eventually signed into to law by Christie in January 2012. The state got as far as posting sports betting regulations on its gaming enforcement website before the sports leagues sued and accused New Jersey of violating the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. Also known as the Bradley Act, PASPA prohibits state-sponsored sports betting outside of Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana.
New Jersey is looking to change that law, but lost in district court and at the Third Circuit of Appeals, and ultimately failed to be granted a review by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, during oral arguments, lawyers for the Department of Justice, which intervened in the case, acknowledged that New Jersey could repeal its laws prohibiting sports betting and would not be in violation of PASPA. In the Third Circuit's ruling, the judges wrote, "We do not read PASPA to prohibit New Jersey from repealing its ban on sports wagering." The U.S. Solicitor General's office, in its brief opposing New Jersey's appeal to the Supreme Court, affirmed this notion and also wrote that New Jersey could repeal laws banning sports betting without violating PASPA "in whole or in part."
That's exactly what the state attempted to do with Lesniak's most recent bill. Three days after the Supreme Court declined New Jersey's cert petition, Senate Bill No. 2250 was pushed quickly through the Assembly and Senate with overwhelming support and sent it to the governor's desk. Christie took all 45 days he was allotted before declining to sign the bill.
"There were several editions [of the bill] that were vetted by all the attorneys who were involved in the litigation as well as counsel for the Senate, Assembly and the attorney general's office," said Dennis Drazin, an attorney and adviser to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman, who has been involved in the litigation throughout case. "We have no question in our minds that the bill that was passed would have been legal and not violated PASPA. It's word-for-word with what the Third Circuit said we could do and word-for-word with what the federal government said we could do in every argument they made, including the Solicitor General's opposition for the position to cert."
Beck, a Republican, who represents the area that includes Monmouth Park racetrack, believes Christie's initial reluctance to sign the bill was due to the legal fees the state had already accrued during the battle with the sports leagues.
"After having paid $3 million in taxpayer money, we want to make sure the State of New Jersey is best positioned to be victorious, if we're going to go into another legal battle," Beck said. "That will be the discussion on [Sept.] 10th, and then we'll figure out a go-forward strategy from there."
While the politics play out, Monmouth Park remains poised to offer sports betting within weeks of any legislation being passed. Last year, the park spent $1 million building the William Hill Race and Sports Bar that was designed to be converted into an operational sportsbook in anticipation of sports betting being legalized. There are 100 TVs and a wall earmarked for a Vegas-style odds board inside the restaurant.
"I would think in three weeks after the bill is signed or the veto override, we'd be ready to go," Drazin said.
In May 2013, William Hill, which offers more than 100 sportsbooks in Nevada, agreed to be the exclusive provider of sports betting at Monmouth Park. William Hill CEO Joe Asher is taking a wait-and-see approach to any new legislation in New Jersey, he said.
"We'd want to get comfortable from our perspective that this is an appropriate thing to do," Asher said. "If the bill becomes law, then pretty clearly we would be following whether or not there was any litigation to follow."
Lesniak expects the sports leagues to contest any new legislation, but believes the state would prevail in any legal challenges since it is "doing what Third Circuit judges and DOJ attorneys said we could do," by decriminalizing sports betting.
"Look," added Asher, "eventually sports betting is going to be legal in the majority of states. You can't stop people from betting on sports. And, even if you could completely shut down all sports betting, it would be a disaster for the NFL."
In the meantime, as many as six Atlantic City casinos are expected to close in 2014. The Revel, which opened in 2012 at a cost of $2.4 billion, closed its doors Tuesday.