A bill that would have the state assert greater control over Atlantic City’s finances goes to the Senate floor for a vote on Monday, along with a companion bill to offer the city’s remaining casinos a payment in lieu of taxes deal to stop losses for tax appeals. The takeover bill would mandate that the city “monetize” its water authority. Moody’s has said that without the two measures passing, the gaming capitol will face insolvency as soon as next month.
With unrest at the state house [link] and one prominent opponent dissenting Thursday as the bill advanced, the question on Monday will be whether Sweeney can rely on North Jersey lawmakers to line up behind co-sponsors and supporters like Paul Sarlo (D-36), Kevin O’Toole (D-40) and Loretta Weinberg (D-37).
Sweeney’s takeover plan drew fire from citizen activists and witnesses during yesterday’s meeting of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, where some accused the Senate President of aiming at a forced privatization of the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority, which controls the city’s water. As one witness refused to step down from the mic, Atlantic City residents bussed up to Trenton for the hearing chanted “Stop the takeover.”
Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison called that public outcry and the witness’ subsequent arrest the latest and most surprising development in the “knock-down drag-out political brawl” over the takeover.
“I think that the protest and the fact that they were in Trenton will cause legislators to perhaps at least take a second look at this takeover process,” Harrison said of the effort to give the state Local Finance Board broad powers to renegotiate collective bargaining rights and hand over the water authority to either Atlantic County or the privately held New Jersey American Water. “Before the protest, there was this sense of inevitability in the legislature.”
“I would think that just politically, Northern New Jersey interests may be taking a second look,” Harrison continued, citing the talks of a sale to . If opponents succeed in bringing attention to the water authority issue, she believes that New Jersey American Water’s chief lobbyist could present a problem — Phillip Norcross is the brother of powerful South Jersey Democrat George Norcross III.
At Thursday’s hearing, Sweeney said that the push to monetize does not make privatization a foregone conclusion. Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian previously told the Press of Atlantic City that he believes the state would not have pursued the takeover if city council had greenly a proposal to dissolve the MUA and bring the water in-house.
“The county government would love to step in and operate the water company, which would be a shared service,” Sweeney said of ongoing negotiations between the city and county. “And the jobs would remain unionized. So we are not looking to take the water company and privatize it.”
Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11) told PolitickerNJ that while she believes the privatization question will require a more nuanced discussion, she thinks that the takeover bill itself is too broad and would set a bad precedent for small cities that see similar drops in their ratable base. Beck was the sole dissenting vote on Thursday, and confirmed that she will be voting ‘No’ again in the Senate.
“I think they would be voicing the same concerns as we heard from the Atlantic City folks yesterday,” Beck said, adding that she also has misgivings about the state’s record of intervention after the arguably failed takeovers of Newark, Jersey City and Paterson’s school districts. “They would still want to have a voice in what was happening in their municipality and the takeover bill doesn’t really allow for that.”
As for the takeover’s opponents in the Assembly, where speaker Vince Prieto (D-32) and majority leader Lou Greenwald (D-6) have objected to the bill’s altering collective bargaining rights and going over the heads of city government respectively, there may be a slight thaw. Greenwald previously said that he would not post an Assembly version of the bill if Guardian and the city council still objected to its terms.
Though an Assembly version of the bill was not posted to the public board list as of Friday afternoon, a representative with Greenwald issued a statement saying that the Assemblyman may be coming around.
“Though we are still evaluating the change in policy, this is the reason we started having the conversation about state intervention in Atlantic City,” reads the statement. “The introduction and movement of this legislation has clearly spurred action in the municipal government and I’m glad to see an attempt to effect needed change.”