South Jersey Sees Few Alternatives as A.C. Takeover, Casino Expansion Bills Pass

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Senator Jim Whelan (D-2), whose PILOT deal for Atlantic City casinos is now tied to the state takeover effort

The Senate passed two bills Monday bills to have the state intervene in Atlantic City as it nears insolvency and expand casino gaming to North Jersey, where two new casino would be expected to open in the Meadowlands and Jersey City. With Moody’s predicting both that Atlantic City will face bankruptcy without the takeover bill’s accompanying payment in lieu of taxes deal and that the city will take an additional hit if it has to confront new in-state competition from new casinos, the bills could be working at cross-purposes.

Senator Jim Whelan (D-2), who sponsored the original PILOT bill, told PolitickerNJ that he voted for the takeover yesterday not because he supports its terms and conditions, but because the city faces insolvency next month. With the present version of the bill already the hard-fought outcome of negotiations between Governor Chris Christie, the legislature and Atlantic City’s local officials, he said he doubted a suitable alternative will emerge.

“I don’t know how to bridge that divide when both entities here, the governor on the one hand and the city on the other hand, every time you move forward they move further away,” Whelan said.

As for the gaming expansion effort, Whelan doubled down on his long-time opposition. Though he stopped short of criticizing the governor and legislative leadership for lending their support to both efforts at the same time, he called the push for new casinos misguided.

“The theory that we’re going to have this wonderful experience where the two North Jersey casinos capture the New York metropolitan market will last as long as there are no casinos in New York City proper,” Whelan said. “It’ll be two or three years at the most, then Manhattan will have a casino.”

Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-1), another fierce opponent of North Jersey casinos, said that while he voted against both bills, he also does not see a bankruptcy as a desirable alternative to the takeover. A municipal bankruptcy, he said, would have a deletirious  effect on the whole South Jersey region.

“It is not a good development for the state of NJ to have one of its major municipalities declare bankruptcy,” Van Drew said. “Would I have liked a different bill? Yes, and I expressed that with my ‘No’ vote.

“The governor may not accept anything else, other than the bill as it was presented yesterday,” said Van Drew. “The other option would be bankruptcy. And the bankruptcy issue has a profound effect not only on Atlantic City, but on Atlantic County, on southern New Jersey.”

The sticking point for Van Drew was the takeover bill’s effect on collective bargaining agreements for city workers. Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-32) has said that he does not support the takeover effort for the same reason.

“The police have given up a great deal already,” Van Drew said of the last few years’ cuts in staff. “They’ve already done all of this, the police and the firemen.”

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, who was at yesterday’s Senate session, said that the PILOT bill’s passage was the only bright spot in the proceedings. That bill would aim to stop the losses in revenues that have followed from casino tax appeals.

“They’re willing to redirect money and that’s the smart way to do it,” he said of the plan to have the state collect fixed payments from the casinos and redistribute them to the city. “In this particular case it doesn’t come to the city, it goes to the state and we’ve got to follow a financial plan.

“They have fifty to sixty percent of our budget that they actually control,” Guardian added, reiterating his stance that Atlantic City has already failed to flourish under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager. “Let’s hope with Assembly Speaker Prieto standing tall and looking out for our working men and women and things like that, we find some compromise.”

South Jersey Sees Few Alternatives as A.C. Takeover, Casino Expansion Bills Pass