Supporters say sports betting can pump at least $225 million annually in new revenue into the Atlantic City casinos and racetracks, and boost tourism, especially on weekends, at the ailing Shore resort - much the same way it fills casinos, hotels, and restaurants in Las Vegas.
Those who treat problem gamblers cautioned that it could generate something else, too.
"It will just make it more accessible for those who are predisposed to gamble, who normally would not call, say, a bookie," said C.P. Mirarchi, a gambling counselor based in Philadelphia who treats clients in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. "Some will be pushed over the edge.
"Sports betting is not escape gambling like slots," he said. "It's action gambling . . . and it will create a problem for some."
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), the legislature's main proponent of sports wagering, said he planned to introduce legislation Thursday that would authorize the New Jersey Casino Control Commission to begin the process for licensing sports betting at casinos and horse tracks in Mays Landing, Freehold, Monmouth, and the Meadowlands.
"I expect to get it to Gov. Christie for his signature before the end of the year," Lesniak said Tuesday night. "By the start of next year's NFL season, when the Eagles play the Giants, you'd better reserve your room soon in Atlantic City, because it will be packed, just like Las Vegas is now."
Before New Jerseyans can place their first bets on sports, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) must be overturned or repealed. The federal law, enacted in 1992, prohibits wagering on sports in all but four states - Nevada, Oregon, Montana, and Delaware - and of those, only Nevada has a true sports book. Las Vegas has had a monopoly since 1975 on single-game wagering, considered the most lucrative type of sports betting.
After PASPA was enacted, any state that wanted sports betting had 18 months to get it grandfathered in. New Jersey failed to meet the deadline when a bill never made it out of committee.
South Jersey lawmakers say this is New Jersey's second chance.
"With this amendment in place, we can now concentrate on lifting the federal ban so that Atlantic City and the state as a whole can reap the economic benefits of a gaming practice that reportedly generates billions illegally annually," said Assemblyman Matthew W. Milam (D., Cape May).
A national gambling study pegged sports betting as a $380 billion industry, with the bulk of the revenue going to illegal bookmakers.
Lesniak said the question's passage gives the state more clout to take on PASPA. He filed a lawsuit two years ago to overturn the federal law, but a judge ruled that he had no standing and dismissed the case this year.
Lawyer Stephen D. Schrier, head of the gaming practice at Blank Rome L.L.P. in Princeton and a former deputy attorney general at the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, said there were significant challenges ahead.
"Even though voters want it, and racetracks and casinos want it," he said, "there are still legal hurdles that must be overcome."
Among them are groups opposed to expanding sports betting. An NFL spokesman said the league continued to oppose any expansion beyond the four states. The NFL and the courts quashed Delaware's efforts in 2009 to offer more than parlay betting, where at least three bets must be right to win the wager.
"We have a long-held, unwavering opposition to gambling on NFL games," said Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman. "We continue to support the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which became law in 1992 and prohibits states from operating a lottery or betting scheme based on pro or college games."
I. Nelson Rose, considered a national authority on gambling law, said the legal battle could take some time.
"First, Sen. Lesniak has to revive, and then win, his federal lawsuit," said Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif. "Then, there will be an appeal.
"In Delaware, the state could not get the courts to let it begin while its sports-betting case was up on appeal. There should be no questions in dispute [regarding New Jersey], so this all should be resolved relatively quickly. But quickly, when it comes to courts, is still more than a year, more likely two or three."
Atlantic City casinos and the state's racetracks want sports betting badly enough that they say the fight is worth it. New casinos and racetracks with slots, primarily in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, have bled revenue, jobs, and customers from both industries.
"Over the past decade, New Jersey's casino and racing industries have not been able to distinguish themselves from the numerous gaming locations that have opened on our border," said Barbara DeMarco, a lobbyist who has worked with the state's racetracks. "Sports wagering will give New Jersey that distinction once again, setting us apart from those locations and their offerings."
Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley 215-854-2594 or email@example.com.