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N.J.'s fight for sports gaming moving to Washington

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The effort to legalize sports betting in New Jersey could get much-needed attention on Capitol Hill, as two Garden State congressmen prepare bills that would lift the federal government's ban on the practice.

One of the lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-Long Branch), was scheduled today to announce legislation that would exclude New Jersey from the ban, which now applies to all but four states. The announcement comes five days after Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill to allow in-person sports betting at the state's casinos and racetracks.

"The existing federal law is unconstitutional and arbitrary, giving four states access to this billion-dollar industry, while shutting out the rest," Pallone said in a statement issued before a 1 p.m. press conference in Trenton. Pallone was scheduled to make the announcement with state Sens. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union) and Jim Whelan (D-Northfield), who have led the push to legalize the practice in New Jersey.

The ban also would be lifted under two bills to be introduced today by U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-Mays Landing), according to his website. One bill would exempt New Jersey from the state's 1992 ban, while another would repeal the law outright and give all states until 2016 to legalize sports betting.

But lifting the ban could be difficult even with the support of federal lawmakers, said Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Legalizing sports betting might "not be high on the agenda in the national political process" during an election year, he said, especially given the traditional battle lines on gaming issues.

"The Republicans have generally been more averse to legislation to expand gambling than the Democrats have," Posner said. "And given that the House is controlled by the Republicans, it would seem that this would a heavy lift legislatively."

New Jersey voters in November approved a ballot question on whether state lawmakers should seek to overturn the federal ban. That led to the legislation the governor signed into law Jan. 18.

Posner noted that the ban on sports betting could also be remedied through judicial action, or having federal courts overturn the law. Neither approach is a sure thing, he said, but any step such as the referendum or the introduction of a federal bill is a positive sign.

"No one step can be assured of getting you what you want," he said. "In a judicial or legislative process, it's often a series of incremental steps that ultimately leads to the result you're looking for, so you can't get there unless you start down the path."

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Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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