TRENTON, N.J. - Twenty years after missing a deadline to let its residents bet on professional or collegiate sporting events, New Jersey legislators passed a law Monday night that would make it legal.
But that was the easy part. Once Gov. Chris Christie has signed the measure, as is expected, the state faces an uphill battle in federal court to try to overturn a law banning sports betting in all but four states.
The state Senate and Assembly adopted a bill that would let New Jerseyans place bets at the 11 Atlantic City casinos and the state's four horse racing tracks on football, baseball, basketball and other professional or college sports games. Bets could not be placed on games involving New Jersey collegiate teams.
They also passed laws allowing horse racing fans to place bets at bars and restaurants, and pressured businesses planning to build off-track betting parlors to get it done within a year or get out of the business.
"These votes, by both houses of the legislature and the voters of New Jersey, mark the beginning of the end of the inequitable federal ban on sports betting," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a northern New Jersey Democrat who has been the measure's strongest proponent. "This time next year our residents won't have to fly to Las Vegas or visit their local bookie to bet on the Giants, Jets or Eagles to win the Super Bowl. They will be able to go to an Atlantic City casino, Monmouth Racetrack or The Meadowlands."
Lesniak, who sued the federal government in an effort to overturn the ban, only to see his lawsuit dismissed, predicted the state will have better luck in court, particularly given that New Jersey residents indicated by a 2-to-1 margin in a non-binding referendum in last November's election that they favor legalized sports betting.
Channeling his inner Rex Ryan, the prediction-prone coach of the New York Jets, Lesniak said, "I guarantee a victory in the federal courts for New Jersey to be able to enjoy the same benefits from sports betting Congress has given to Nevada."
New Jersey missed a 1991 federal deadline to legalize sports betting, and was left out of the 1992 law that allowed it in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana. Nevada is the only state taking legal bets on individual games.
Sports betting proponents want to help the state's struggling casinos and horse racing tracks, where bets would be taken, and provide a new source of tax revenue from a huge pool of money flowing untaxed to illegal bookmakers often allied with organized crime, or to unlicensed offshore Internet sites.
"Let's face it sports gaming is already taking place, but the only people taking advantage of it are the bookies and criminal enterprises," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a southern New Jersey Democrat.
Lesniak had to drop a provision that would have let residents bet from their home computers or cellphones in order to improve the odds that Christie will sign the bill. The Republican governor endorsed the referendum before the vote was held.
The Atlantic City casinos welcomed passage of the bill, saying it would help them compete with gambling houses in neighboring states, and offer one more attraction to customers who now have more gambling options than ever before.
"If and when the federal ban is overturned, this law would permit casinos to accept wagers on sporting events, adding another amenity to enhance our ability to compete and grow as a destination resort," the Casino Association of New Jersey said in a statement released Monday. "Legalized sports betting would provide an economic boost for Atlantic City and the entire state of New Jersey, as it would attract more tourists to our city and its world-class entertainment, thriving restaurants, brand-name retail shopping and world-famous Boardwalk."
The legislature also approved a measure allowing horse racing fans to place bets from in to 12 bars or restaurants in northern and central New Jersey.
New Jersey has authorized 15 off-track betting locations, but only three have been built. Racing industry executives blame the uncertainty surrounding their sport in New Jersey, including ongoing efforts to find a private operator for Monmouth Park, and the end of annual casino subsidies to the tracks.
The legislature also passed a law Monday requiring holders of permits to build off-track betting parlors who have not yet built them to do so within a year, or forfeit a $1 million bond and lose the right to build such a facility.