Updated on 09/15/2011 1:30PM

Jersey phone bet bill passes

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The New Jersey legislature passed a bill late Thursday that would authorize off-track betting and telephone wagering in the state after several failed attempts over the past three years.

The legislation, which Gov. Donald DiFrancesco will almost certainly sign, officials said Friday, will put New Jersey on an even competitive keel with neighboring states like Pennsylvania and New York, which have long accepted wagers at off-track outlets and through lucrative telephone systems.

"We're finally moving forward, and we're anxious to get started," said Bruce Garland, the senior vice president for racing for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands.

The Senate passed the bill 28-5 on Thursday night, with seven members not voting, and at 11:32 p.m., the Assembly concurred. DiFrancesco has 45 days to sign the bill or issue a conditional veto, which would modify the existing bill and send it back to the legislature for approval.

The bill will allow the NJSEA to open 15 off-track betting sites in the state, subject to zoning regulations and local approval. The legislation also allows for the operation of a statewide account-wagering system.

New Jersey horse interests have attempted to pass a similar bill the past several years, but the effort has been compromised by infighting between tracks and horsemen. Last year, a bill was passed by both the Senate and Assembly, but then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman issued a conditional veto in support of the NJSEA, which objected to live racing requirements. The modified legislation was never brought up for a vote.

The NJSEA still harbors an objection to a requirement in the bill that its tracks hold 140 live racing days through 2004, but on Thursday, the authority and the state's horsemen's group reached an agreement to press for "clean-up" legislation during this fall's lame-duck session, officials for both sides said Friday. The proposed legislation would allow the track and horsemen to come to an agreement on live racing dates below the minimum required by law.

Despite the approval of the bill, New Jersey is still a long way from taking wagers at off-track sites and over the telephone. The law will not take effect until 180 days after the governor signs it, and rules will have to be drawn up by the New Jersey Racing Commission to regulate account wagering and off-track betting.

Mike Vukcevich, the deputy director of the commission, said Friday that the commission would begin to draft regulations for telephone wagering immediately.

"There's no problem with us writing the regs now, but they won't become law until the 180 days are up," Vukcevich said, adding that the entire process would likely take three to four months.

Barbara DeMarco-Reiche, a lobbyist for the state horsemen, said she believed the earliest that an account-wagering system could be operational would be February 2002. Off-track betting sites would likely take another year, she said, because of licensing and zoning requirements.