ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — A massive behind-the-scenes scramble is on to determine what New Jersey's gambling market will look like if casinos are expanded beyond Atlantic City.
But no clear consensus has emerged on what proposal to put before voters — or when — and even staunch supporters of expanded gambling are squabbling over crucial details.
Legislators have introduced two bills to authorize new casinos in other parts of the state, but they differ vastly in scope and location. Local towns continue to push for gambling halls within their borders, and Atlantic City and its allies struggle to head off a change that the eight surviving casinos fear could wipe them out.
And New Jersey's state Senate president isn't saying whether he will put the measures up for a vote.
"Everybody wants to make sure they're not left out," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who supports casinos in his northern New Jersey district.
Here's a look at where things stand as the maneuvering kicks into high gear:
Last week, three Democratic state assemblymen introduced a bill authorizing a referendum on whether voters want to approve up to three casinos in the most heavily populated corner of the state: Bergen, Hudson and Essex counties.
That's where the two most prominent proposals for new casinos would go. Hard Rock and the Meadowlands Racetrack want to build a nearly $1 billion casino at the East Rutherford sports complex, promising they could have it open as soon as next summer. Track owner Jeff Gural is offering to pay a 55 percent tax rate (Atlantic City casinos pay 8 percent), with $200 million a year in new tax revenue going to help Atlantic City recover. And in nearby Jersey City, footwear magnate Paul Fireman has proposed a casino that could cost five times as much as the Meadowlands project, directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
This week, three state senators proposed a referendum authorizing two new casinos in the northern part of the state and one somewhere in central New Jersey. That would keep Monmouth Park racetrack in Oceanport in the mix for a casino, something the borough's officials have long wanted.
Senate President Steve Sweeney said "there could be even more" gambling expansion-related ballot questions proposed in coming weeks.
HOW MANY, AND WHERE?
State Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Bergen County Democrat, says no more than two casinos ought to be built.
Sen. Joseph Pennacchio says no new casinos are needed; he prefers letting each of the state's four horse racing tracks offer slot machines, in operations run by a consortium of Atlantic City casinos. The tax money from gambling winnings would go toward state employee pensions, as well as to help prop up the horse racing industry, which is competing with slots-subsidized tracks in New York and Pennsylvania.
"Expanding gambling casinos statewide would be the death knell for Atlantic City." Pennacchio said. "The casinos that have managed to survive in Atlantic City would find their competition increase and profits decrease."
Crucial questions remain, including how much the new casinos would pay in taxes. They range from Gural's proposed 55 percent rate to an unspecified rate somewhere north of 8 percent envisioned by Assemblyman Ralph Caputo's proposed referendum.
Would there be separate rates for slot revenue (which accounts for two-thirds of Atlantic City's gambling revenue) and table games? And how would a permanent revenue stream of new aid be guaranteed to reach Atlantic City? Would it go solely toward municipal infrastructure improvements, or budget aid, or would some or all of it go to the eight casinos struggling in Atlantic City?
When it comes to whether, and when, expanded gambling goes before voters, Sweeney holds all the cards. And he's keeping them pressed tightly to his chest.
He refused to tell The Associated Press whether he will permit either of the referendum bills to be voted on (the deadline to make the November ballot is Aug. 3). Gov. Chris Christie has already endorsed the idea of letting voters decide this fall, as long as whatever plan is agreed upon helps Atlantic City.
"I need to make sure whatever we do is a true benefit to Atlantic City," Sweeney said. "If we do this, we have to do it in a way that puts Atlantic City back to work."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC