With weeks still to go until Election Day, spending for and against a proposal to allow two casinos in North Jersey has already obliterated spending records for a New Jersey ballot question.

Disclosure reports show nearly $21 million had been spent as of last week. That included $12.5 million from opponents connected with Atlantic City and New York casinos interested in blocking any regional competition and $8.5 million from developers wanting to build casinos in Jersey City and the Meadowlands.

The Our Turn NJ campaign funded by the would-be North Jersey casino owners, Paul Fireman and Jeff Gural, has shut down its advertising campaign in the face of outside and internal polls indicating voters are likely to reject the ballot question.

Still, the executive director of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, Jeff Brindle, said he wouldn’t be surprised if spending on the ballot question ultimately approaches $40 million.

“This has broken all records, absolutely,” Brindle said.

The current record was the spending on the 1976 ballot question that allowed casinos in Atlantic City; almost $1.4 million was spent, which amounts to $5.6 million when adjusted to account for inflation.

Also on the Top 5 list are the $2.9 million in inflation-adjusted dollars spent on the 1974 proposal allowing casinos in four locations in New Jersey, which failed, and the $2.2 million spent in 1985 to pass a question allowing simulcasting at horse racing tracks.

Gambling questions lead to expensive campaigns, and this year’s spending surge was anticipated.

“Historically in New Jersey, that certainly is the case,” Brindle said. “Casinos have always been, and gambling in general.”

The most expensive non-gaming ballot-question campaign was the $3.2 million in inflation-adjusted spending on a 2013 question that increased the state’s minimum wage.

Trenton’s Bad Bet has spent more than $11.3 million. Its funding comes from companies and people connected to companies that operate casinos and slots parlors in Monticello, Queens and Yonkers, New York, as well as Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City.

Another $500,000 apiece has been spent by the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council and the Hotel, Restaurant and Club Employees and Bartenders Union Local 6, both affiliates of the AFL-CIO based in New York City.

Brindle said the heavy spending by independent groups follows a national, state and local trend spanning the last decade.

“In 2013 gubernatorial and legislative elections, we had over $41 million spent by independent outside groups. And it just continues to grow,” Brindle said. “It’s really overtaking the political parties and even the candidates themselves. This is why we’ve been pushing for legislation to strengthen the political parties and kind of offset the influence of these groups.”

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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