"This represents a very balanced approach," Van Drew said, "and helps the horseracing industry to help itself."
Among the recommendations for reviving Atlantic City is streamlining its regulations pertaining to casinos, giving more power to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and allowing smaller casino hotels with a minimum of 200 rooms to be built.
Noticeably absent among the proposals were continuing the casinos' annual subsidy to the horseracing industry and adding state-run video lottery terminals at four state racetracks that would compete directly with Atlantic City.
Instead, various new revenue sources - from an increase in off-track wagering parlors to shorter racing calendars - were suggested.
Lawmakers said that the Democrats' recommendations would provide the framework for legislation to put the governor's plan into motion, and that such legislation could be crafted as early as next month. Senate President Stephen Seeney said Monday that such a bill could be acted upon before the end of the year.
Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said the Republican governor's office was reviewing the proposals.
"I noticed that much of it repeats recommendations found in the Hanson Commission report," Drewniak added, referring to the panel that drew up the Christie plan.
Under the Democratic lawmakers' vision, steps to make over Atlantic City would include:
Updating and modernizing the state Casino Control Act to deliver regulatory relief, cut red tape, and use technology to eliminate antiquated monitoring requirements;
Reorganizing the Casino Redevelopment Authority to give it zoning and planning authority over Atlantic City's casino district. CRDA also would play a more significant role in the resort's management, including greater oversight and investment in tourism and policing to ensure a clean, safe environment;
Legalizing intrastate Internet gaming through Atlantic City's casinos and putting a question on the general-election ballot to allow voters the opportunity to legalize sports betting;
Implementing a full-scale, multi-year national marketing program through a partnership between the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority and the casinos.
"Unless we embrace new advances in gaming, nothing will be able to maximize our success," said Union County Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, who has championed allowing both sports betting and Internet gaming at the Shore.
"Our goal was not to just provide hospice to Atlantic City and the horse tracks, but to breathe new life into them. This plan will do that," he said.
A 200-room casino-hotel pilot program also was recommended. Some casino operators have said that the 500-room minimum now required by the Casino Control Act has discouraged them from investing in Atlantic City because of high start-up costs involved.
The state Senate approved legislation on 200-room casino hotels earlier Sept. 30; the Assembly is set to vote on it in the coming weeks.
To save horseracing, the Democratic lawmakers urged:
Streamlining operations at both the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park racetracks to reduce operating costs and spending and to expand marketing and promotional opportunities;
Enabling the Meadowlands Racetrack to follow and build upon the successful Monmouth Park "elite meet" experiment, in which that track increased its wagering and purse money and reduced its calendar from 140 days to 71;
Enhancing the New Jersey Sire Stakes and Breeding Development programs to encourage horse breeders to stay and race in the state;
Expanding the current system of parimutuel-only wagering to allow for exchange and single-pool wagering,
And retooling the current off-track-wagering law to ensure that additional facilities would be built quickly. (So far, only three of 15 proposed OTW sites have been built).
Savings from the regulatory and operational changes at the tracks, plus the revenues from expanded OTWs and introduction of intrastate Internet gaming would provide the necessary and stable revenue sources to support both horse-racing and Atlantic City, the lawmakers said.
"In concept ... it sounds good, with the exception of the fact that there are no immediate solutions for 2011," said Barbara DeMarco, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association Inc., which, with the standardbred industry, represents about 15,000 full- and part-time employees.
"Racing can't have a dip next year and then be expected to rebound in subsequent years when these things are implemented and operational," she said. "We need both long-term and short-term solutions. We applaud the efforts being made, but, as with everything, the devil is in the details."
As with the governor's plan, maintaining the annual casino subsidy to the racetracks in exchange for not installing VLTs was not an option, Van Drew said.
The racetracks "need new fresh ideas, new momentum to make the industry more exciting," he said. "We're giving them all the tools to enable them to move forward without taxing the casino industry."
To smooth out regional tensions and acknowledge North Jersey's needs, the lawmakers said the Meadowlands district, which includes the racetrack, would benefit from a modification of the state's Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant program to help the privately-financed Meadowlands retail/entertainment complex succeed.
"It is a great starting point, and it recognizes that we need to consider all of the entertainment districts in the state in an equitable manner," said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen).
Also notably missing from the Democrats' recommendations was talk of developing a Meadowlands casino to increase gaming revenues - a step South Jersey lawmakers such as Van Drew fought vigorously and North Jersey lawmakers like Sarlo supported.
Said Lesniak: "Neither the governor or some of the Democrats are willing to go that far."
Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or firstname.lastname@example.org.