New Jersey votes to make sports gambling legal

Nov 8, 2011 |
New Jersey votes to make sports gambling legal
Sports betting could be a major boost to the NJ economy.
Sports betting could be a major boost to the NJ economy.
Voters in New Jersey Tuesday overwhelmingly supported a non-binding referendum favoring sports betting in the first of several actions needed to overturn the 20-year-old federal law that prevents wagering on professional and college sports events in all but a few states.

Yes, voters supported the sports betting measure by a whopping 65-35 margin with 91 percent of the precincts reporting, putting the state on record as backing a court challenge to the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which denies sports wagering in 46 states but allows it only in Nevada, and on a much more restricted basis in Oregon, Delaware and Montana. Absentee ballots were counted first and showed strong support for the referendum, and that support held steady as the votes were counted throughout the night.

The state legislature will have its say on the issue over the next several weeks. Assuming the lawmakers are on board – considering the lopsided vote it’s hard to imagine they would reject the will of the people – and a court challenge is successful, sports wagering would be allowed at the 11 Atlantic City casinos, the state’s four racetracks and also at a former track located in Cherry Hill.

But much work needs to be done before the first bets can be placed.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who announced his support for the referendum’s passage only last week, says that he will meet with key supporters of the measure, including state Sen. Raymond Lesniak [who was easily re-elected Tuesday], to discuss strategy moving forward. Both houses of the legislature must pass legislation that would amend state law to allow sports betting along with casinos, horse race wagering and lotteries.

“This sends a strong message to the courts and to the Congress of the United States that it can’t discriminate against the people of New Jersey,” an elated Lesniak told Tuesday night after victory was assured.

Lesniak says that on Thursday he will introduce legislation and he hopes to have it ready for Christie’s signature by the end of the year, setting the stage for a court battle in early 2012.

Besides the courts, there is another, less-likely, route for overturning PASPA – through Congressional action. But this would require the House and Senate taking the extraordinary action of overturning a law passed by a previous Congress. Not unprecedented, but very improbable. And given the toxic atmosphere in Washington, it’s unlikely that any legislation at all will get to President Obama’s desk between now and November 2012.

The action by the voters is likely to mobilize opponents of sports betting, most prominent among them the NFL but also including the NCAA. [The wording of the referendum prohibits betting on any college game played in New Jersey, and also excludes wagers on any college game involving a New Jersey team.]

Noted law professor Nelson Rose, who writes a regular column on the often-tortured relationship between gambling and the law, says that there is a good chance that a New Jersey suit challenging PASPA will be successful. But don’t expect immediate action.

“Court cases take time,” Rose wrote in a recent column. “Even though there will be no facts in dispute, it will still be months before . . .  the trial judge can issue a ruling. Then, assuming New Jersey wins, the important question will be whether the state will be allowed to start accepting bets on sports events immediately.”

Others aren’t so sure New Jersey’s case can survive in the courts, pointing to the Commerce Clause in the Constitution which limits the power of states to regulate the economy and grants the federal government overall control in matters that involve other nations, Indian tribes and the states.

But Joe Brennan Jr., president of the lobbying group iMEGA (Interactive Media and Entertainment Gaming Association), was delighted with the result.

“Sports betting in New Jersey is now inevitable,” Brennan told, “and the step taken by New Jersey voters is obviously a very important part of the process. [The vote] was actually a little bittersweet because New Jersey residents have always supported sports betting. Now we can move forward. If this vote is not a clear intention of what New Jersey wants, what is?”

New Jersey’s voter endorsement actually gives the state a second bite of the apple regarding sports betting. In 2010 Lesniak and IMEGA took the matter to court, but they were fighting a war without weapons because the state (Christie, really) declined to lend its support. The judge ruled that because the state was not on board, Lesniak et al “lacked standing” and thus could not prove that not allowing sports betting was harmful. The case was tossed out of court last spring.

Now the voters in New Jersey are giving supporters another chance, and Brennan feels that such a high-profile case could make it all the way to the Supreme Court.

“Five years from now we’ll look back and appreciate the hard work that everyone put into this to make it all possible,” he said.

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