TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey lawmakers are considering big changes in the way people can gamble in Atlantic City and beyond.

Sports betting and in-state Internet gambling are on the horizon, and the state is moving toward asserting more control over the nation’s second-largest gambling market to try and revive its sagging fortunes.

Claiming that New Jersey is losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars a year to organized crime and casinos in other states, a state Senate committee urged the legislature on Monday to allow voters to decide whether sports betting should be allowed at the state’s casinos and racetracks.

A resolution passed by the Senate Economic Growth Committee calls for a referendum, to be held next November in which voters would decide whether to allow gambling on professional sports games.

But a federal ban on sports betting in all but four states would have to be overturned first.

Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, says revenue from sports betting could help New Jersey’s struggling horse tracks stay alive. He read a text message a friend of his sent him recently from a Delaware racetrack where sports betting is legal.

“At Delaware Pk Sports Book on way to Eagles game,” the message read. “Oh boy NJ missing out! You gotta get it in NJ. Packed house 10am Sunday.”

Lesniak is suing the federal government to overturn a ban on sports betting on Constitutional grounds, mainly that it fails to treat all states equally. New Jersey was offered a chance to allow sports betting in 1991, but failed to do so.

A 1992 law restricts sports betting to the four states that met a deadline to sign up for it: Nevada, where Las Vegas sports books determine the odds for sporting events across the country; Delaware; Montana; and Oregon.

“It’s something whose time has come,” Lesniak said. “Sports betting is going on every day in every neighborhood. Atlantic City is losing out, New Jersey is losing out.”

Later Monday, the full Senate is expected to vote on bills that would create an Atlantic City Tourism District encompassing the 11 casinos, overseen by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

The Senate is also expected to vote on a bill that would allow Internet betting by New Jersey residents, and people from foreign countries. If those restrictions are kept in place, New Jersey would not need federal approval to offer online betting, Lesniak said.

“Sophisticated software” on servers housed in Atlantic City casinos would make sure only New Jersey residents or foreigners would be able to place bets, Lesniak said.

Also to be considered Monday is a bill to allow for smaller casinos in Atlantic City. Sen. James Whelan, the Democratic former mayor of Atlantic City, is pushing the measure that would allow for casinos with as few as 200 rooms, down from the current 500-room minimum.

The Seminole Indian tribe, through its Hard Rock franchise, plans to build such a casino if the law is changed.

The Senate also plans to vote on a bill that would revise and relax some of Atlantic City’s famously strict casino regulations, stripping the Casino Control Commission of much of its power and giving it to the state Division of Gaming Enforcement, part of the Attorney General’s Office.

Measures aimed at helping the struggling horse racing industry are planned for votes as well. They include expanding off-track betting and setting up exchange wagering, a type of online betting popular in Europe in which two or more people place directly opposing wagers on the outcome of a horse race.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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