TRENTON, N.J.—Smaller casinos and Internet betting were closer to reality in New Jersey Monday as lawmakers moved to create big changes in the way people can gamble in Atlantic City and beyond.
Sports betting could be on the horizon, and the state is moving toward asserting more control over the nation's second-largest gambling market to try and revive its sagging fortunes.
Both houses of the legislature approved a bill that would allow a casino to open with as few as 200 hotel rooms, down from the current 500-room minimum, and about a tenth of the 2,000 rooms that the city's most successful casinos offer.
The bill also provides for a second new casino to initially open with 200 rooms, and expand to 500 rooms within five years. The Seminole tribe of Florida, through its Hard Rock franchise, plans to build such a casino on the Atlantic City Boardwalk if the bill becomes law.
The measure now goes to Gov. Chris Christie. A spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.
But Sen. James Whelan, the Democratic former mayor of Atlantic City who proposed the bill, said "all indications are" that Christie will sign it into law.
"No Republicans voted against it in either house," he said. "That's pretty indicative."
Also Monday, the Senate approved a bill that would allow Internet betting by New Jersey residents, and people from foreign countries. "Sophisticated software" on servers housed in Atlantic City casinos would make sure only New Jersey residents or foreigners would be able to place bets, Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, said.
Measures aimed at helping the struggling horse racing industry were approved by the Senate as well. They include expanding off-track betting and setting up exchange wagering, a type of online betting popular in Europe in which two or more people place directly opposing wagers on the outcome of a horse race.
Earlier in the day, a Senate committee urged the legislature to allow voters to decide whether sports betting should be allowed at the state's casinos and racetracks.
A resolution passed by the Senate Economic Growth Committee calls for a referendum, to be held next November in which voters would decide whether to allow gambling on professional sports games.
But a federal ban on sports betting in all but four states would have to be overturned first.
Lesniak says revenue from sports betting could help New Jersey's struggling horse tracks stay alive. He read a text message a friend of his sent him recently from a Delaware racetrack where sports betting is legal.
"At Delaware Pk Sports Book on way to Eagles game," the message read. "Oh boy NJ missing out! You gotta get it in NJ. Packed house 10am Sunday."
Lesniak is suing the federal government to overturn a ban on sports betting on Constitutional grounds, mainly that it fails to treat all states equally. New Jersey was offered a chance to allow sports betting in 1991, but failed to do so.
A 1992 law restricts sports betting to the four states that met a deadline to sign up for it: Nevada, where Las Vegas sports books determine the odds for sporting events across the country; Delaware; Montana; and Oregon.
The Senate postponed a vote on a bill that would create an Atlantic City Tourism District encompassing the 11 casinos, overseen by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
The vote was postponed after several amendments were proposed, including canceling an $8 million tax break for the casinos on complimentary vouchers, as well as saving the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, which was to be shuttered under earlier versions of the plan.
Also postponed was a vote on a bill that would revise and relax some of Atlantic City's famously strict casino regulations, stripping the Casino Control Commission of much of its power and giving it to the state Division of Gaming Enforcement, part of the Attorney General's Office. Those bills are due for votes on Dec. 20.