By WAYNE PARRY
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law Tuesday legalizing sports betting in the state — but only after a federal ban on such gambling is overturned.
The governor signed a bill that had been passed overwhelmingly by both houses of the state legislature. It would legalize betting on professional and collegiate sporting games at the Atlantic City casinos and the state's four horse tracks.
Next up is a court fight to overturn a federal law that makes it illegal to bet on sports in all but four states. If New Jersey prevails and the law is either overturned by the courts or repealed by Congress, it would free all 50 states to offer sports betting.
"This is the beginning of the end for the unfair, discriminatory and unwise federal ban on sports betting," said Sen. Raymond Lesniak, an Elizabeth Democrat who has been the measure's most vocal proponent. "It has failed to curb the public's desire to bet on sporting events. Indeed, betting on sports has increased exponentially since the ban passed Congress."
Voters signaled by a 2-to-1 margin in a non-binding referendum in November that they want sports betting to be legal.
"New Jersey voters made clear they want sports wagering, and this law will handle it in a responsible and professional fashion," said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, an Essex County Democrat. "It does the right thing for New Jersey, and will ensure our racetracks and casinos remain competitive. Our job isn't done, but this is great economic progress for our state."
Deputy Assembly Speaker John Burzichelli, a southern New Jersey Democrat, said the law is designed to reclaim money currently flowing to illegal bookies and offshore gambling web sites.
Let's face it — sports gaming is already taking place, but the only people taking advantage of it are the bookies and criminal enterprises," he said. "This opens the door for New Jersey to implement well-regulated sports gaming."
Lesniak tried once to sue the U.S. government over the 1992 federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which limits sports betting to four states that approved it by a 1991 deadline. New Jersey weighed such a law but failed to act on it. Sports betting currently is legal only in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana.
A judge dismissed Lesniak's lawsuit. But he believes a second lawsuit will succeed with the backing of the state legislature, a law signed by the governor and the voters' referendum.
He predicted the state attorney general's office would soon file a lawsuit. A spokesman for the office did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
"Our Attorney General already has the legal arguments to blow a bigger hole through the federal ban than San Francisco 49ers' Anthony Davis could to the Giants' defensive line," Lesniak said, already envisioning how much money could have been legally wagered on this weekend's NFC championship game.
A 1990s study pegged sports betting — legal and otherwise — as a $380 billion industry in the U.S. Proponents of legalized sports betting estimate the market has since grown to a half-trillion dollars, with most of it going untaxed and unregulated.
Sports betting revenue would be taxed at the same 8 percent rate the casinos currently pay on their gambling winnings. Another 1.25 percent levy would go to a development fund for Atlantic City projects.
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