The States have long been known as “laboratories of democracy.” They’re places that laws, policies and regulations get a chance to be tested out on a smaller scale before adopted nationally. In New Jersey, the same can be said for our municipalities. In the Garden State, the municipalities, with their long tradition of self-rule, are the laboratories of change, particularly controversial ones. And one of the most controversial issues in the state’s history was and remains gambling.
Gambling has played a huge part in the state’s history. Our earliest schools benefited from lotteries, and, of course, the State Constitution was amended in 1976 to allow for games of chance in Atlantic City. New Jersey Lottery machines are in every supermarket and convenience store. More recently, the state allowed online gambling.
But let’s stick with Atlantic City. In the mid-1970’s the idea of allowing gambling – heavily regulated – in that ailing city seemed to be a win-win situation for everyone involved. New Jersey’s urban cores were already in decline, and Atlantic City in particular was experiencing high rates of unemployment and crime. By placing casinos in that declining resort city, it was hoped that it would kick-start an urban turnaround. So by the late 1970’s, New Jersey attempted to create its own little version of Las Vegas along its southeastern coast. It was risky. There were good arguments on both sides for and against it. It was an experiment, and time would tell whether or not it would work.
Well, it’s 2014. How’s Atlantic City looking these days? From my perspective, and I’ve been there about twenty times in the past two years, it’s looking pretty bad. Really bad. With the exception of the sliver of casinos along the Boardwalk, the widespread infrastructural rot, the empty lots, the hundreds of young unemployed men and women in the streets at all hours…this experiment has not worked out. Atlantic City remains dangerous, downtrodden and stuck. And with new competition from casinos in Bensalem, Pennsylvania and Yonkers, New York, whatever exclusive ‘edge’ the A.C. casinos had in the region is, more or less, lost.
There are many reasons to argue why this experiment failed. Again, perhaps it’s because of the increased competition. Perhaps it’s due to the greed of the casinos, who could have shared more of their proceeds with the city and state. Perhaps it’s because Atlantic City is located way off the New York City-Philadelphia axis line that most New Jerseyans live along. Perhaps it’s for all of those reasons.
So here’s my “Hail Mary.” Open up all New Jersey for gaming, like Nevada. Let the slots and tables make their way into every community, from urban Camden to rural Newton. Nevada has had this system for decades and, utilizing their regulatory and taxation models (with some local tweaking), we could make it work. Let the dollars flow, everywhere. Let the slot machines into the racetracks and Wawa’s and Quick Checks. Our kids, who are already bombarded with plenty of vice online, won’t get hurt a bit. I doubt that local casinos will lead to the improvement or deterioration of any neighborhood. They don’t seem to have too much of an effect on neighborhoods in Nevada – or Atlantic City. And if you’re afraid of sleazy pawnbrokers and check cashers moving in to your town, look around – they’re already there. Been to Saddle Brook recently? Newark? Fair Lawn? Kearny?
All-state gambling will be sure to raise a lot of revenue. In fact, I would have 60% of all casino proceeds go directly to the state’s coffers to fund education, infrastructure and pensions. And no, I do not expect gambling revenues to transform New Jersey into a paradise; but legalized, regulated gambling will bring in revenue. Our neighbors in New York and Pennsylvania have already built casinos right on our borders. People can gamble from their own homes in places like Denville, Morristown and Cherry Hill anyway. The rulebook’s been thrown out. Enough already; the Atlantic City experiment has failed.
Let the gaming, and the revenue, begin.