ATLANTIC CITY — A bill from Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-32) introducing new benchmarks that would give Atlantic City two more years before a state takeover goes to committee again Thursday. Prieto declined to post the bill favored by Governor Chris Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) last week, when his own bill cleared the Assembly Budget Committee with unanimous, bipartisan support.
Don Guardian, Atlantic City’s Republican mayor, said Tuesday that he is actively courting Assembly members as the lower house decides whether to buck Christie and decides how long to give Atlantic City before the state would be entitled to break union contracts and privatize the city’s water authority. Guardian said he and Prieto have been discussing the best tack for getting a competing bill through, and that the Assembly version could end up buying A.C. less time than originally expected.
“It’s time to bring those benchmarks that the Assembly Speaker has been asking for to show the millions of dollars in savings and to help him,” Guardian said. “Maybe the compromise is instead of two years, we narrow that down. We talked about months. We talked about what we can do before December 31st.
Christie’s bill would have the state take over the city’s finances immediately, while Prieto’s would allow two more years of benchmarks and an incremental increase in state oversight if the city fails to meet fiscal goals set by the legislation.
“You can hold my feet to the fire, you can hold city council’s feet to the fire, but you can’t starve us out,” Guardian said of the differences between the two proposals.
A clutch of Northern Democrats have come out as Prieto supporters in the war over the two bills, and several Assembly Republicans have followed suit. Assemblymen Chris Brown (R-2), Sean Kean (R-30) and Erik Petersen (R-23) are on the record as favoring the Speaker’s plan.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee is expected to amend the bill so that funds from Atlantic City casinos’ PILOT payments go directly to its public schools. Christie has said that he will veto any proposals that differ from Sweeney’s Senate version in any way, and is pursing a lawsuit against the city for missing a payment to its public schools this month. That payment would come from property tax collections, the depleted revenue source that the PILOT would be shoring up. Prieto said in a statement that he is willing to compromise on the bill as it advances.
“I made clear that this bill was a work in progress, and I remain open to compromising, but we will now be ready to move forward,” Prieto wrote. “With this bill and the remedial actions it can bring, along with the governor’s existing tools, we can put Atlantic City on the right track for fiscal success and help it transition to the resort destination we all know it can become in the coming years. It is the right compromise for everyone, especially the people of Atlantic City.”