TRENTON — Amid rumors of another meeting between Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-32) and South Jersey loyalists on the proposed state takeover of Atlantic City, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) laid into Prieto and Atlantic City’s local government for what he called their unwillingness to compromise on its terms. Sweeney did not mince words Tuesday as he predicted disastrous consequences for the gaming enclave and the state as a whole if it defaults as the upper and lower houses bicker.
“If there’s blame, it’s in the Assembly,” Sweeney said. “And it’s with its leadership.”
Grappling over the takeover has become a contest between Prieto, city government and North Jersey Democrats faithful to the Speaker against Assembly Democrats who support the Senate bill championed by Sweeney, Governor Chris Christie and South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross III. Sweeney said that afternoon that he doubts Atlantic City’s economic fortunes will reverse in the two years Prieto’s bill would allow the former east coast gaming capital before letting the state step in.
Citing the city’s $96 million deficit and the potential damage to other New Jersey municipalities’ credit ratings if Atlantic City declares bankruptcy, Sweeney said Prieto should post the successful Senate bill in the Assembly with the compromise provisions he has offered. He also went after Prieto for remarks he made yesterday, when he suggested that bankruptcy should still be an option.
“I’m not entertaining the idea of making it easier go bankrupt,” Sweeney said of any further compromises. “How has it now become an option?”
Sweeney offered the the city 130 days to cut per capita spending by half to stave off his takeover plan, which would have the state Local Finance Board step in to break public union contracts and sell off or consolidate city assets and utilities. Pointing to his subsequent offer of 150 days, an offer that Prieto claims he never received, Sweeney said he will not be offering any more concessions to what he described as a recalcitrant administration.
“The mayor of Atlantic City said on a Tuesday, ‘I do not need two years. His words, not mine. ‘I can fix it by December,’” Sweeney said. “So on Wednesday I said 130 days to develop a plan and then implement it by January 1. And they rejected it.
“They didn’t even look at the idea, they just rejected it within five minutes. If we’re going to have a discussion — I’ve thrown out two compromises. I threw out a second one that the Speaker denied, but I’ve got to tell you I will not have those kind of meetings on my own any more. I’ll have witnesses. Because I don’t like being accused of not telling the truth.”
Asked whether it may be time for a change in leadership in the Assembly, Sweeney shrugged that question off. The Record reported earlier this month that Norcross, a powerful insurance executive widely considered the most powerful unelected official in the state, approached the the Bergen County Democratic Chairman about replacing Prieto to get the Senate bill through in the lower house.
“That’s not for me to say,” Sweeney offered.
Prieto countered later that day that avoiding bankruptcy should not come at the expense of public workers’ collective bargaining agreements when winnowing down the city’s budget.
“I’ll be as clear as I can – those who want to avoid Atlantic City going bankrupt better sit down and negotiate seriously with the Assembly to protect civil and worker rights or push the governor to use his existing authority. Those are the only ways this will get done,” Prieto wrote in a statement. “I’ve been waiting, and will continue to do so.”