- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A high-stakes game of chicken over how to ask New Jersey voters whether they want two new casinos in the northern part of the state will come to a head next week when the legislative session is to end.

The Senate and Assembly each plan to vote Monday on their own version of a bill authorizing a referendum on expanding casinos to northern New Jersey.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto each insist their bill is the better measure, and neither is willing to accept the other’s proposal. The plans differ on who could own the new casinos and how much gambling tax money from those casinos would be sent to help redevelop Atlantic City.

Sweeney said he has enough votes to pass his bill, but said Prieto doesn’t have the votes to get his Assembly measure passed. Prieto said he has more than enough support to get his bill passed Monday.

Sweeney insists that both new casinos be owned by existing Atlantic City casino operators and that both would send a larger portion of gambling tax revenue to Atlantic City. The Assembly measure would require only one of the new casinos be owned by an existing Atlantic City operator.

“I negotiate for a living,” Sweeney said. “It’s what I do. But when the only things you want to negotiate over are the two things I said are not negotiable, then what’s to negotiate?”

Prieto said he is through making compromises.

With both sides digging in their heels, there’s the possibility that neither bill will pass both houses by the end of the legislative session on Monday. In the next session, lawmakers have until August to pass a bill putting a referendum in time for the November general election, but it needs to pass by a three-fifths majority, leaving it vulnerable to opposition from Atlantic City-area lawmakers.

Both houses held hearings on their respective bills Thursday, during which southern New Jersey business and political interests opposed expanding casino gambling, while those from the more populated northern part of the state touted the jobs and tax revenue they say the new casinos will provide.

Assemblyman Chris Brown, an Atlantic City-area Republican, said the purpose of legalizing casinos in New Jersey - to help revitalize a struggling Atlantic City - is being forgotten.

“We decided to allow this vice to come into the state so we could provide jobs and economic growth,” Brown said. The intent of casinos “was to revitalize a part of our state that had disproportionately high unemployment, where families were hurting.”

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a north Jersey Democrat, replied, “The customers that have left our state are not going to Atlantic City. They don’t get on a bus because they love salt water taffy. They want a game, preferably 15, 20 minutes away.”

The Senate also approved the remainder of an aid package for Atlantic City on Thursday. Its key provision would allow the city’s eight casinos make specified payments in lieu of taxes for 15 years, giving them cost certainty and preventing them from appealing their taxes, something they have done with great success in recent years.

The package also includes measures redirecting casino investment taxes to help pay down Atlantic City’s municipal debt and abolishing the Atlantic City Alliance, which marketed the resort to other parts of the country.

The bills now go to Gov. Chris Christie, who vetoed an earlier version of the package. The Legislature then made changes Christie requested.

An Assembly committee also advanced a bill that would eliminate restrictions on how Atlantic City’s former Showboat casino can be used. The bill would prevent deed restrictions on publicly owned buildings in the city’s Tourism District. Competing legal restrictions on how the Showboat can be used scuttled a plan by Stockton University to turn it into a satellite campus.

The bill now awaits a vote in the full Assembly; the Senate has already passed it.

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Follow Wayne Parry at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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