Those fighting and championing North Jersey casinos could spend a record $40 million trying to sway public opinion before a November referendum, observers say.
But the sources of that money do not necessarily have to be disclosed under current state law, something some advocates are trying to change.
“Right now the public doesn’t have the benefit of knowing who is behind these groups, knowing how much they’re spending,” said New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission Executive Director Jeffrey Brindle.
The stakes this year are raised as three November referendums are expected to draw $80 million to $100 million by advocacy groups, he said.
A bill introduced in June by Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, seeks to change reporting requirements for ballot questions and candidates.
It would require disclosure of donors contributing more than $300 for specific causes to defeat or support ballot questions.
“We’d like to make sure the public has a firm sense of who’s contributing so they can make a better informed decision of what their motives are,” said Singleton, who said he’s pushing for the law to be enacted before the November vote.
Currently, groups have to report contributions and spending only if they are expressly for or against the issue, Brindle said.
Those groups have to disclose expenses the same way political candidates in New Jersey do now — filing reports 29 days and 11 days before the election and 20 days after.
But being somewhat vague means special-interest groups can get around this requirement, which Brindle says may happen.
It depends on the wording and message on advertisements and direct mail.
“Media people are very clever in terms of getting across a message in terms of supporting or opposing without actually using the magic words. It’s quite possible that could happen,” he said.
Voters will decide in a November referendum whether to approve as many as two North Jersey casinos.
Since a 1976 referendum allowed casino gambling in Atlantic City, the resort has held New Jersey’s monopoly on gaming.
Proponents of the 1976 ballot question spent $1.3 million to support that proposed constitutional amendment. That’s about $5.6 million today, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Sides have begun forming both for and against expanding gambling.
Debra DiLorenzo is president of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey and chairwoman of No North Jersey Casinos Coalition, a coalition of more than 300 companies, business organization, government officials and citizens.
DiLorenzo expects efforts opposing the ballot question will ramp up after Labor Day, although she would not say yet what sort of advertising campaign that would entail or how much it might raise.
“We’re reviewing all of our options. We certainly will follow all the rules and regulations regarding campaign finance,” she said.
DiLorenzo said the group is trying to engage coalition members who aren’t already registered to vote to do so.
“We look at his public question as the most important issue for southern New Jersey in the past 40 years,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce is developing a platform for people who support passing the ballot question, said spokesman Ron Simoncini.
The Meadowlands has widely been viewed as a possible site for another New Jersey casino.
In June 2015, Hard Rock International unveiled plans on its desire to build a $1 billion, 650,000-square-foot property there.
Simoncini said support grows for North Jersey gambling when people are asked if they want a casino specifically at the Meadowlands sports complex.
“New Jersey’s best interest is to protect its gaming revenue by at least keeping its residents at home,” Simoncini said. “The reality is we have to address that problem first. If we lose our customers to other states, fighting allocation of tax revenues for casinos that no longer exist makes no sense.”
Supporters of the referendum say it will help capture customers that Atlantic City lost when gambling was expanded to Pennsylvania and New York.
“Advancing the plan for casino expansion into North Jersey is critical for New Jersey’s economic future,” state Sen. Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, said June 3 during a news conference with Bergen County officials and union leaders to push for North Jersey casinos. “The casino expansion will help generate funds supporting investment in a new future for Atlantic City.”
Opponents argue it will seriously damage Atlantic City, where four casinos closed in 2014.
In June, Fitch Ratings predicted that as many as four more Atlantic City properties could close if casino gambling comes to North Jersey.
In May, Mark Giannantonio, CEO of Resorts Casino Hotel, said three to five Atlantic City casinos would close “fairly immediately” upon opening of new casinos upstate.
“We need more time to straighten out Atlantic City and turn it around,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic. “The idea of this referendum question comes at a bad time for the people of Atlantic County and Atlantic City.”