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Righting a wrong: A history in New Jersey sports betting

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On 11/07/2011 09:57 PM in General
On Tuesday voters in New Jersey will weigh in on whether to put the state on record as supporting legal efforts to allow sports betting at the state’s casinos and race tracks. When they cast their ballots, few will be aware that bare-knuckles political infighting nearly two decades ago is the reason for the referendum.]

Bill Bradley’s last NBA elbow jumper hit the bottom of the net some 3½ decades ago, and was soon followed by his election to the pro hoops Hall of Fame. Not bad for a shooting guard/small forward who appeared in just one All-Star Game and averaged only 12-plus PPG, but it helps to have played in New York on the Knicks’ last title team.

Always anxious to be defined by more than his basketball skills, Bradley went on to a decent career as a United States senator. Representing heavily Democratic New Jersey, he checked off all the right boxes –– advocate for the underprivileged, proponent of children’s health initiatives, campaign finance reform. Bradley barely survived a re-election challenge from Republican Christine Todd Whitman in 1990, but a few years later the two would take turns in screwing over the citizens of New Jersey and perhaps millions of others nationwide on the issue of sports betting.

Never a fan of gambling, Bradley in 1992 decided that it would be a great idea if he could fix it so all 250 million people in the country were deprived of their right to wager legally. The downtrodden took a temporary back seat while Bradley –– with the backing of the NFL, NBA and NCAA –– went about the business of sponsoring the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

[Bradley would later say that his opinion on gambling was cemented when, during an NBA game, he was appalled when a meaningless end-of-game shot that enabled one team to cover the spread was cheered. Bradley doesn’t mention the game, and it’s possible the story was a fabrication to bolster his arguments against gambling.]

The former Princeton star wanted sports betting banned in every state, but since politics is the art of the possible he settled for a compromise: States which already allowed it [Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Delaware] could continue in their present form.

Through the work of New Jersey’s other senator at the time, Robert Torricelli, the door for sports betting in New Jersey was held open, and New Jersey could be added to the list if both the legislature and the state’s voters approved it.

Fair enough.

But at this point Whitman re-enters the picture, and the issue takes a disgusting turn. Still stung from her loss to Bradley, in 1993 Whitman was running for governor against Democratic incumbent Jim Florio. The state was still recovering from the effects of the 1989 recession, Florio had been forced to raise taxes to balance the budget and voters were in a surly mood. Polls had the race a dead heat as legislators debated putting sports betting on the November 1993 ballot.

Republicans, so close to the governor’s office that they could taste it, figured it was time for some old country hardball.

“Turnout is everything when a race is tight,” New Jersey state Sen. Ray Lesniak, a longtime advocate of allowing sports betting in the Garden State, told Covers.com, “and Republicans [who controlled the General] Assembly refused to even take a vote on sports betting because they thought it would increase turnout in urban areas and hurt Whitman’s chances.”

Joe Brennan Jr., president of the Interactive Media Entertainment and Gambling Association and a strong advocate of sports betting in New Jersey, affirms Lesniak’s recall of the times, putting it in even starker words: “Republicans were afraid that minorities would turn out in enough numbers to support sports betting, and they wanted to depress that vote for political purposes.”

Internet searches also indicate that Nevada’s casinos sent money east to help kill the effort in the Assembly, but that can’t be confirmed.

Under the terms of PASPA, sometimes known as the Bradley Act, New Jersey had a year to carve out its own exemption. But because of the shenanigans in the legislature, the year expired and PASPA’s wet blanket has been covering the state’s casinos and race tracks ever since. The issue was relegated to the back burner during the 1990s and early 2000s when the Atlantic City’s casinos were riding a solid economy to profitability, but the dawning of the Great Recession of 2008 and the maddeningly slow recovery breathed new life into the issue.

Last year Lesniak’s law firm financed a legal challenge to PASPA (“it cost us $300,000,” says Lesniak), but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie refused to commit the state’s support, and the courts threw out the case in part because the plaintiffs (mainly Lesniak) lacked standing –– i.e., did not speak for the state. Lesniak and Brennan are now ready for another battle.

“We feel that the state cannot ignore the will of the people,” Lesniak told Covers on Tuesday. “The people will have spoken and even the governor won’t be able to misread the vote.”

Lesniak was proven right on Wednesday when Christie announced that:

A. He plans to vote for the referendum
B. Assuming passage, he will meet with Lesniak to discuss a legal plan of attack.

“Let’s get that economy up from underground,” Christie said in a surprising announcement of his support. “Let’s have the people who benefit from it be the people of the state of New Jersey,” not individuals involved in organized crime.

“With this referendum we have an opportunity,” he said, that gives the state more solid footing to challenge the federal ban on sports wagering outside of a few select places. “If it fails, obviously I won’t have any interest in pursuing it.”

Lesniak says that Tuesday night’s vote which is expected put the state on record as supporting sports betting will be cost-efficient for the state’s lawyers. “First of all,” says Lesniak, “all they have to do is cut and paste. My firm has already done all the paperwork. And [the cost to the state] is a drop in the bucket compared to what the state will realize when the racetracks and Atlantic City casinos can take bets.”

Opposition will be fierce and unrelenting. The deep-pocketed NFL, NBA and NCAA will produce a litany of gambling horror stories, and you can be sure the name of a rogue NBA referee will come up. Nevada’s Strip casinos will also dig deep to protect their monopoly. But if the polls are to be believed – the latest shows that 58 percent of likely voters favor passage and only 31 percent oppose – on Tuesday night New Jersey will have taken the first step toward righting a wrong that has existed for 18 years.

[Note: Efforts to reach Bradley were unsuccessful. Whitman did not return phone calls or emails. A representative of Florio returned a call, but Florio declined to talk.]
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