The state's voters said Tuesday they want the legal right to bet on football, baseball and other sports, provided a federal ban is lifted.
With nearly 90 percent of precincts reporting, the sole statewide question on the ballot was favored by 65 percent of voters. The non-binding question asked whether New Jersey should pass a law that would be the first step toward permitting sports betting at Atlantic City casinos, the state's four horse tracks and a former racetrack site in Cherry Hill.
A federal ban on sports betting in all but four states would have to be repealed before anyone in New Jersey could legally bet on professional, college or amateur sports. Bets would not be allowed on any college sports or athletic events that take place in New Jersey, or on games in which a New Jersey college team is playing.
"New Jersey voters have sent Congress a message that its law which has allowed sports betting in Las Vegas, but not in Atlantic City, is unfair," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, an Elizabeth Democrat who has been the Legislature's biggest proponent of sports betting. "I'm confident the federal courts will see that injustice as well as the law's other constitutional infirmities, and overturn it."
Lesniak said he will introduce legislation on Thursday laying the groundwork for sports betting in New Jersey. He said the bill would be fast-tracked through the Legislature and sent to the governor to sign before Jan. 10, when the legislative session ends.
He had sued to overturn the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which bars betting in most states, but a judge dismissed the challenge in March.
New Jersey missed a 1991 federal deadline to legalize sports betting, and it was left out of a 1992 law that allowed it in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana. Nevada is the only state taking legal bets on individual games.
The benefits to the casinos and tracks would come not so much by flooding them with new revenue from sports bets, but by drawing more customers, who would presumably gamble and spend money on other things as well.
"It's another amenity," said Dennis Gomes, co-owner of Resorts Casino Hotel, who started one of Nevada's first sports books in Las Vegas decades ago. "You're giving your casino customers another reason to come here. There's a lot more money in that, from those extra people coming down and playing at the casino than there is from the money people actually bet on sports."
Gov. Chris Christie endorsed the idea. He says people all over the country are betting on sports illegally and that it's time to bring the gambling out of the shadows and let the state benefit from the money it generates.
That was also on the mind of Maureen Nap, a homemaker from Point Pleasant who voted yes on the question.
"It would take it out of the hands of organized crime," she said.
Her husband, Bob, a retired plastics engineer, also voted in favor of the measure.
"I think we should be able to bet on whatever we want, and the government should be able to tax it, since they tax everything else," he said.
A national gambling study in the 1990s pegged sports betting - legal and otherwise - as a $380 billion industry. Joe Brennan, president of the Interactive Media Entertainment & Gaming Association, an online gambling association, said that figure now is closer to a half-trillion dollars. He said Tuesday's vote "may have been the most important step" in overturning a federal ban on sports betting.
"Because the federal ban on regulated sports betting conflicts with the expressed will of New Jersey's voters, the court must resolve this issue in people's favor, and do so quickly," he said.
New Jersey legislators were already lining up behind a proposed sports betting law.
"Illegal Internet gambling sites and bookies are profiting mightily from illegal sports betting as we speak," said Assemblyman Nelson Albano, a Cape May Court House Democrat. "Legalizing the gaming practice in New Jersey would produce additional tax revenue for the state, and set Atlantic City apart from competing casinos in neighboring states. With this vote, we are on our way."
Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a Belleville Democrat who wants the state's racetracks to be allowed to have slot machines, said the new revenue will help.
"Without slot machines, racetracks in New Jersey are finding it very hard to keep up with the competition in other states," he said. "Legalized sports betting in New Jersey would give our racetracks a competitive edge."
Opponents included the National Football League. At a public hearing last year on proposals for sports betting, NFL spokesman Timothy McDonough reiterated the league's long-standing opposition to legalized betting on its games. He said such gambling on games could undermine their integrity in the eyes of fans.
Sports betting proponents want to help Atlantic City's 11 struggling casinos and the state's four racetracks: the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, Monmouth Park in Oceanport, Freehold Raceway and Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing. They say legal sports betting also would provide a new source of tax revenue from a huge pool of money that now flows untaxed to unlicensed offshore Internet sites or to illegal bookmakers, many of whom are allied with organized crime.
A former racetrack site in Cherry Hill also would be eligible to collect bets. Lawmakers feared losing the affluent suburban market to nearby Philadelphia if Pennsylvania were to approve sports betting.