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TRENTON-When it came time yesterday afternoon for the Assembly appropriations committee to vote on whether to release enabling legislation aimed at financing a $355 million arena in Newark, the panel balked (see earlier stories). A “yes” vote would have moved the bill, A3785, to the Assembly floor in a couple of weeks. A “no” would have killed it entirely. The refusal to vote at all puts a question mark over the matter.

At the very least, nothing will happen until after the gubernatorial election in November pitting Democrat Jim McGreevey, mayor of Woodbridge, against Republican Bret Schundler, former mayor of Jersey City. It’s considered unlikely that the bill and its Senate counterpart, S1272, will be revived during the final months of the term of acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, which would put the whole thing in the lap of the new governor. McGreevey has been supportive, while Schundler has repeatedly called for a public referendum.

The legislation started out as a means of financing the new arena to house the NBA Nets and NHL Devils. YankeeNets, which owns the two franchises, would foot part of the bill, while the balance would be paid for from taxes collected within a special sports/entertainment district in Newark.

Most observers agree that it was brought down, for now, by its own weight coupled with election-year politics. What began as a fairly simple bill became an overload when $100 million worth of projects in South Jersey was tacked on at the behest of Assembly speaker Jack Collins (R-Salem). A number of other projects proposed around the state were added until the final price tag ended up in the vicinity of $1 billion.

So when the bill hit the committee yesterday, even McGreevey, who continues to support the plan for a new arena, was reduced to calling it a “pork fest.” Schundler, meanwhile, is taking credit for gunning it down. Whether or not the result will give Schundler a boost in the race remains to be seen – he’s trailing McGreevey by anywhere from 15 to 20 points in most polls.

For the arena’s potential tenants, the vote cancellation was disturbing. They want to be in a new arena by 2004 and are threatening to move the teams out of state. YankeeNets executive Leonard Coleman, former president of MLB’s National League, told reporters yesterday “the message we got wasn’t something we wanted to hear.”

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