A two-year will-he-or-won’t-he saga ended Tuesday as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie finally signed into law a bill to license and regulate online poker in the Garden State.
After making the poker community wait until the final day of his 45-day window to sign or veto bills the previous two times the legislation hit his desk, Christie promptly signed only minutes after the New Jersey state legislature approved the changes made by Christie earlier this month in a conditional veto by a vote of 68-5-1 in the assembly and 35-1 in the senate.
New Jersey becomes the third state to authorize online poker behind Nevada and Delaware, and follows the latter as the only states to approve full casino-style online gambling.
The legislature passed the bill with the exact changes made by Christie in his conditional veto, the biggest of which were increasing the tax on gross revenues from 10 to 15 percent, raising the funds earmarked for compulsive gambling programs from $150,000 to $250,000 a year, and adding a time limit of 10 years for the authorization of online gambling unless re-established by law.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” State Sen. Ray Lesniak, the leading sponsor of the bill, told PokerNews in a phone interview. “It’s been an unnecessarily long road, but we finally got there. It’s a relief. I didn’t want to have to go through this a third time, but I’ll tell you I was prepared to. The governor knew I wasn’t going away, and unfortunately neither were the problems of Atlantic City.”
Lesniak first introduced legislation to license and regulate Internet gambling in January of 2010. The bill was approved by the state legislature in January of 2011 only to be vetoed by Christie on the last possible day in March.
After Christie indicated he had come around on the idea of online gaming during his state of the state address in January of 2012, Lesniak reintroduced the legislation with a few changes to address concerns brought up by Christie in his initial veto. Last December, the state legislature once again passed the bill. Christie waited until the last day to offer his conditional veto on Feb. 7, but this time the veto was viewed as a victory for outlining minor changes that would get the governor’s signature.
Throughout the long process, Lesniak was harsh in his criticism of Christie’s wavering on the issue.
“From the get go, the governor has been on the wrong side of what is necessary to save jobs in Atlantic City and grow the gaming industry there and in the state,” Lesniak said. "It was a real struggle to get him to change his viewpoint, but thankfully he did. Better late than never.”
Lesniak originally didn’t expect to be able to put the legislation back on Christie’s desk until March 18 because that was the next voting day on the state senate’s schedule at the time of the conditional veto. With moving quickly to compete with Nevada and Delaware in mind, the legislature called an emergency resolution in order to get the bill passed three weeks earlier on a day when both houses were meeting to hear Christie’s annual state budget address.
Lesniak said he is hoping the virtual cards will be ready to hit the air in September. First a lot of work will need to be done in testing software and vetting applicants, but Lesniak hopes the legislature’s urgency in approving the bill and the governor’s quickness in signing will indicate that they want these licenses issued as soon as possible.
“I think the fall is a somewhat aggressive timetable but certainly doable, particularly since we put our stamp of approval on this so quickly,” Lesniak said.
The law is expected to mark the return of PokerStars to U.S. soil. Its parent company, Rational Group, is currently seeking state regulatory approval to buy the struggling Atlantic Club Hotel Casino, which otherwise likely would have closed.
Only casinos located within Atlantic City will be able to host Internet gaming sites. Initially, they will only be able to serve people located within New Jersey’s borders, but the bill allows for the possibility that agreements could be made to allow the participation of other states and perhaps foreign countries in the future.
Lesniak is urging Christie’s administration to get started in putting together offer sheets for other states to use New Jersey as their center for online gaming sites and regulation.
“We need to get aggressive in courting other states to hook up with us,” Lesniak said. “The governor has an aggressive budget progression for revenue in Internet gaming, so to meet those one of the ways is to take the lead with other states. I expect the momentum to grow once states see the success we’re having with it in New Jersey.”