As online gambling clock ticks, Christie okays mobile track bets, lotto privatization

chris-christie-cardsNew Jersey Governor Chris Christie only has about a week left in which to sign, not sign or veto the online gambling legislation passed by the state legislature before Christmas. (Various sources put the deadline as either Feb. 4 or Feb. 7.) Only the veto option would mean the bill wouldn’t become law, and while Christie has expressed doubts regarding online gambling’s ability to rescue the Atlantic City’s struggling casinos, speculation is mounting that Christie will opt not to sign, leaving the bill to become law by default.

In doing so, Christie could claim that the strong support for the bills in the legislature would have resulted in a fresh vote to override his veto, so he chose the expedient route to keep the legislature focused on more pressing matters. Avoiding putting his stamp of approval on a gambling expansion bill would allow Christie to preserve his bona fides with Republican social conservatives ahead of a possible run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

In the meantime, the Poker Players Alliance is asking its 20k constituency to contact Christie’s office with pleas for him to do the right thing and keep his veto stamp in its drawer. The PPA claims its efforts have resulted in Christie’s office receiving 500 phone calls, 1,300 emails plus countless posts to Christie’s social networking feeds. PPA boss John Pappas met with a “senior member” of Christie’s administration on Tuesday, emerging with the impression that “the Governor is still deliberating on this matter, and a decision hasn’t been made.”

Adding more pressure for Christie to sign, the struggling Atlantic Club casino-hotel has filed formal notice that it is looking at laying off its 1,729 employees by March 29 unless its financial fortunes drastically change. Such a change could occur if New Jersey gaming regulators approve the bid by Rational Group US Holdings – the US offshoot of the parent company of online poker titan PokerStarsto acquire the Atlantic Club. Rational’s bid is viewed as Stars’ ticket back into the US market, as being approved as an Atlantic City brick-and-mortar casino operator would virtually guarantee Stars’ ability to receive a New Jersey online gaming license.

On Monday, Christie had no difficulty putting his signature onto a law allowing New Jersey racetrack customers to place mobile wagers via their smartphones or tablet devices. The legislation allows patrons at the state’s four racetracks to place wagers from anywhere on the property without having to lift themselves up off their bulbous backsides and hoof it all the way down to the betting window. The New Jersey Racing Commission will now get cracking on the nuts and bolts of the regulations. Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a key backer of the legislation, said mobile wagering will help attract a younger tech-savvy demographic to the struggling tracks. New Jersey approved similar legislation for Atlantic City’s casinos last year, although none of AC’s dozen casinos have as yet begun offering the service.

Following neighboring Pennsylvania’s decision to privatize management of its state lottery, Christie is reportedly eyeing a similar move for New Jersey. And just like Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, Christie is apparently keeping state legislators in the dark regarding the bid process. The Inquirer’s Matt Katz reported that Christie is quietly negotiating a 15-year contract with the Northstar Group, the joint venture between majority partner Lottomatica (via US subsidiary GTech Holdings) and Scientific Games that operates the Illinois Lottery.

Like Corbett, Christie’s hush-hush tender reportedly attracted only one bidder. Unlike Corbett, Christie has yet to post the terms of the contract online and negotiations have not been subject to public scrutiny. Both of these facts have critics crying foul, suggesting Christie’s private dealmaking may be unconstitutional. reported that Northstar has pledged $120m as a cash reserve in case their management of the lottery fails to perform up to expectations. As in Pennsylvania, it’s expected that Northstar would seek to expand the lottery’s current scope, including offering products online.