It’s time for lawmakers to ignore casinos’ lobbyists

GREG BEAN

Back in 2002, Mark Rosman, who is the managing editor of Greater Media’s publication the News Transcript, wrote a column about Monmouth County developer Anthony Spalliero headlined, “Whatever TonyWants, Tony Gets in Marlboro.”

It was Rosman’s point that nearly any new development proposal put forth by Spalliero was approved by the local government, whether it was good for the town or not. Rosman wondered what Tony had going for him that other developers didn’t.

Shortly after that column appeared, Spalliero called Rosman on the phone to complain that the newspaperman was “killing him.” He was just an honest businessman, he said, and he’d never done anything illegal. Pinkie swear. He held fast to that lie until the bitter end.

Now, of course,we know what was going on. Spalliero was paying cash bribes to then-Mayor Matthew Scannapieco to grease the wheels of his projects. Last year Spalliero pleaded guilty to giving Scannapieco more than $100,000 in bribe money, and now the 65-year-old developer is out on bail while he awaits his March 17 sentencing. He could face between 70 and 87 months in federal prison for his crimes, although the judge has some discretion to impose greater or lesser incarceration sentences.

I remember a conversation Rosman and I had before his column ran. He was worried about hinting something was foul in Marlboro before the evidence was in. I said that sometimes you just have to go with your instinct. If something smells funny, chances are something is rotten, even though you can’t yet prove exactly what it is. It strikes me that I could write a variation of Rosman’s column today, only nowthe headline would be, “Whatever Casino Owners Want, Casino Owners Get in Atlantic City.”

I’m not suggesting there’s bribe money changing hands to make that happen. Maybe the casino industry just has the best lobbyists in the universe.

What is clear is that the industry seems to get whatever it wants, whether it’s good for the state or not.

Remember when the state banned smoking in all public places, except casinos? You don’t think that happened by accident, do you? That happened because the lawmakers caved to industry demands. And now, the casino lobby is about to put the last nail in the coffin of New Jersey’s horse racing industry, and state lawmakers seemunable, or unwilling to react.

As you drive down Route 1 between Woodbridge and New Brunswick, cussing the traffic, the overdevelopment and wondering whether you’ll be able to keep your job in this lousy economy, the crisis in the state’s racing industry is likely the last thing on yourmind. That’s understandable. After all, why should you be worried about a bunch of people who own and breed racehorses?

Well, here’s why. The sad truth is that if that industry goes belly up, the threat to what remains of agricultural open space in this state will be immense.

The fact is that horse breeders around here help keep most of what’s left of this state’s miniscule open space open. And if they go under, those properties will be ripe for development by people with a plan and a connection. Some of those developers will just be honest businessmen, but some will be people like Anthony Spalliero. Either way, you can say goodbye to what’s left of open agricultural space in New Jersey and hello to a new round of McMansions, minimalls and monster warehouses.

There’s an outside chance we can keep that from happening, but time is of the essence. In a nutshell, here’s what’s going on, as outlined in an excellent and comprehensive story by reporter Jane Meggitt in the Jan. 31 edition of Greater Media’s publication the Examiner.

About four or five years ago, it became apparent to those in the racing industry that in order to remain competitive with tracks in states like neighboring Pennsylvania, they needed to put video lottery terminals and slot machines at New Jersey tracks to attract and retain bettors.

The casino industry didn’t like that idea because it would mean competition, so a compromise was reached. The casino industry would begin a four-year subsidy programto provide $86million to the tracks to make up for what they were missing on account of not having slots.

It worked all right, not perfect, but all right. At least it kept the racing industry marginally alive.

Now, however, that four-year program has ended, a new one has not been implemented and the racing industry is in financial crisis. Purses have been cut dramatically at Freehold Raceway, staff has been laid off, and drastic reductions are expected to follow at the Meadowlands. And without the larger purses, there’s just not enough money flowing in to keep the $1.1 billion-a-year equine industry alive.

I don’t know why the state Legislature has been so slow to demand a new subsidy program as a stopgap or – failing that – pass legislation that would allow the tracks to install video lotteries and slot machines to remain competitive.

Maybe, as I said, the casino industry just has great lobbyists. Their stand on competition from racetracks for slot revenue likely hasn’t changed in the last four years. They, and their lobbyists, are still trying to keep that from happening and avoid competition from racetracks.

Maybe there’s something darker going on. Something we won’t know about for years, if ever.

What we do know is that the dithering in Trenton and reduced purses have already caused some of the state’s smaller owners and trainers to go under. Without immediate action, the big guys won’t be far behind.

For a guy like me who appreciates what’s left of New Jersey’s open space, appreciates a nice drive through farmcountry on a crisp fall morning, that’s an intolerable outcome.

For more information on this issue, please visit our newspaper Web site at www.gmnews.com and click on the Examiner. There, you’ll findMeggitt’smost recent story, a wonderful editorial on the issue and an archive of background stories.And when you’re done reading, give your representatives in theAssembly and the Senate a call and tell them to get off the dime.

The casino industry has gotten everything it wants for long enough.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.