As Rivals Murphy and Sweeney Try to Get Aligned on Sports Betting, Lesniak Revels in Legacy – and Looks Ahead

Long mired in rivalries that go back to the pre-gubernatorial season, and all the prickly barbs of ego assailing public men, Governor Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) today got a mutual leg up from former Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20), long the driver of sports betting in New Jersey.

The Supreme Court earlier today ruled 7-5 that a 25-year old federal law that prohibits sports betting outside Las Vegas is unconstitutional and opened up the floodgates for individual states to assume their sports betting rights.

Sweeney and company immediately set about crafting legislation in the aftermath of the ruling. The


senate bill – affirmed by Senators Jeff Van Drew and Vin Gopal in addition to Sweeney – would provide for an eight percent gross revenue tax on in-person wagering and a 12.5 percent levy on online sports bets. The tax revenue would be dedicated to programs for senior citizens and the disabled. An additional tax of 1.25 percent on gaming revenue actually received by racetracks would be distributed to the host municipalities and counties.

The senate bill went to the Governor’s Office and to the Assembly Office this evening for review, and Assembly Gaming Committee Chairman Ralph Caputo (D-28) expressed optimism that the two turf pawing sides – legislative leadership in the senate, and the Governor’s Office – would be able to finally come together.

“They have to analyze the Supreme Court decision, and the bills have to be consistent with what the courts said,” said Caputo. “The two bills need to be identical with the blessing of the Governor’s Office. This is a situation where public policy takes precedent over personalities. If we want to see Atlantic City jump-started, we’ve all got to be together on this those bills. They have to be merged and they need the governor’s counsel.

“There shouldn’t be any fighting on this as we seize on a head start on this summer,” Caputo added. “This hits every part of the state: the Meadowlands, casinos, and Monmouth Racetrack. Vegas has had the jump on us all these years. Now is our chance.”

Caputo credited former Senator Lesniak as the legislative driving force behind New Jersey’s sports betting ambitions.

“It’s his legacy,” the Nutley lawmaker said. “He worked very hard on this.”

Lesniak felt good this evening.

Having preserved through eight decisions on this question that went against him, he celebrated the Supreme Court ruling.

But he refused to recognize – at least at the moment – the likelihood of the Governor’s Office and Sweeney making peace.

“Unfortunately, I don’t see it that way,” said Lesniak, buried by Murphy last year in the Democratic Primary for Governor. “I wish I could agree but even on this issue there was a trial balloon put out there – without speaking to me. I may be out of the legislature but I’m not out of the arena. This integrity fee. How did that happen? It sounds me like a lobbyist coming out of the Governor’s Office with a big smile on his face. There’s no way Senator Sweeney is going to cave in to the NFL. Someone’s not thinking very well.”

He did add, however, “Ultimately, we will come together.”

A Trenton source close to the leadership triad said the Governor’s Office and legislative leadership are not far apart at all, and expected the legislation to move swiftly.

Lesniak reveled in the moment, recalling that what made him bullish on sports betting from the beginning was an incident in which his friend, former Union City Mayor Rudy Garcia, was arrested for placing a bet with a bookie.

“I was so incensed that he had to go through that, something that was legal in Vegas, and of course he was acquitted, but  that got me thinking about this – about saving Atlantic City and our race tracks,” Lesniak said. “Sports betting can do for casinos what snow boards did for ski resorts. I think it will bring a lot of vitality into the industry.”

Reflecting on his doomed 2017 gubernatorial candidacy, the former 20th District Senator said, “It may have been the Polish blood inside me that drove me on this. If only the decision had come down a year earlier…

“Maybe I would have had a shot,” he asserted, then added with a laugh, “I still have the Exxon case on the horizon.”


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