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Jersey legislators eye sports betting

Dec 11, 2007 6:48 AM

The recent bust of an alleged bookie ring at an Atlantic City casino has re-kindled efforts to legalize sports betting in New Jersey.

Proponents say legal sports gambling would boost the economy, help resort casinos compete with growing competition and hinder an established criminal element.

But it will likely remain illegal.

Obstructed by federal law passed more than a decade ago, state Assemblymen Jeff Van Drew and James Whelan nonetheless remain ardent about passing legislation they revived earlier this year that would legalize sports betting, confining it to the resort casinos.

Although the odds are against the legislators, both recently elected to the state Senate, they hope to gain supporters in the wake of state Attorney General Anne Milgram’s announcement of charges against 23 people in connection with a $22 million illegal sports book allegedly operated in a poker room at the Borgata.

"This is clearly a problem that we could turn around and benefit from," Van Drew told the Press of Atlantic City. "Let’s let the sunshine in."

But the future of legalized sports betting faces stormy weather.

A federal law passed in 1993 allows sports betting in only four states: Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon. New Jersey was given the opportunity by the federal government to legalize sports betting, but the state failed to do so before a federal deadline, largely due to opposition led by former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.

State lawmakers could pass the bill through the Legislature, get a ballot question approved by voters and still be hampered by a lawsuit at the federal level.

"It’s going to be a heavy lift," Van Drew said. "I never pretended that this was going to be an easy thing to do."

But it’s worth it, the senators- elect say.

Not everyone feels the same way.

"Plain and simple — sports betting in New Jersey is illegal under federal law," state Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, has said. "It would be wrong to waste a dime of taxpayers’ money on challenging what appears to be a rather straightforward federal ban."

Taxpayer money would be expected to be used for the state’s legal representation against any lawsuits at the federal level, which would be all but guaranteed.

But Van Drew and Whelan say they’ve gotten assurances from Atlantic City casino operators that they would supply representation for the state.

With that in mind, Whelan says there is no downside, even if the upside isn’t earth-shattering.

"I think we have to be realistic about this. In a theoretical world, this is not going to be a huge boost to the economy," Whelan said. "Gamblers are betting on one of two teams, so a lot of time it’s going to be a wash."

But Whelan says the real money would come in the occasional spike from a major sporting event and in new visitors legalized sports gambling would entice.