Christie, Prieto in high-stakes stare down as clock ticks on Atlantic City

Brent Johnson, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

TRENTON — The war over Atlantic City's future continued to churn Monday, with a group of state lawmakers urging Gov. Chris Christie to compromise on a rescue plan to save the Jersey Shore gambling resort as it gets closer to running out of money and faces possible bankruptcy.

Christie, meanwhile, once again said state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) should stop playing politics and have his chamber vote on the aid package as it currently stands.

Atlantic City has seen its tax base wither thanks to the closure of four casinos in recent years. Mayor Don Guardian said he will be forced to close city hall for three weeks — with police officers, firefighters, and garbage collectors working for IOUs — beginning April 8 if the city doesn't get help from the state.

And if Atlantic City goes bankrupt, experts say, the credit ratings of all New Jersey's municipalities will be damaged.

But there have been weeks of bickering. Christie and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) have pushed legislation providing aid as long as it comes with a measure that would allow the state to take over key parts of the local government for five years.

Local officials, however, say the takeover goes too far. And while the state Senate passed both bills earlier this month, Prieto has refused to put the takeover up for a vote in the Assembly because it would allow the state to break unions' collective bargaining contracts.

On Monday, state Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) said Christie's stance that he will sign only the two bills together, without any changes, is "an ineffective and dangerous way to govern." He called on the Republican governor to negotiate with Prieto.

"There is far too much at stake right now to play politics with Atlantic City's future," Caputo said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) said Christie's way would "trample" on public workers and "strip residents of their right to a representative government."

"I commend Speaker Prieto for taking a measured and thoughtful approach to the situation and standing up against tremendous pressure while the governor refuses to negotiate in good faith with one half of the state Legislature," Vainieri Huttle said in a statement. 

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) and state Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) have also expressed support for Prieto in recent days.

But Christie's office told the Associated Press on Monday that the governor won't budge.

"With the clock ticking, the Assembly speaker continues to play public sector union politics at the expense of the residents of Atlantic City and Atlantic County," Brian Murray, a spokesman for the governor's office, told the AP. "It's time for the games to end, and for Speaker Prieto to post the bill."

Tom Hester, a spokesman for Prieto, told the AP that Christie's comments were "more juvenile gamesmanship by the governor" and that a state law from 1947 already gives Christie the power he needs without a takeover. 

Also at issue is a change to the aid package, also known as the PILOT bill. The measure would allow casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes, helping the city avoid costly tax appeals that have eaten away at the municipal budget.

But after lobbying from casinos, Sweeney altered the legislation to include a provision that would allow gambling halls to opt out of the plan if a casino in north Jersey is built. 

New Jersey voters will decide in November whether to amend the state constitution to allow two casinos in the northern part of the state, this ending Atlantic City's 40-year run as the only place in the Garden State to allow casino gambling.

Caputo said Monday that the change to the measure is "hypocritical" because it would "unravel the entire fabric of the PILOT bill and threaten to destabilize Atlantic City's tax base all over again."

But Kevin Roberts, another spokesman for Christie's office, said it may take seven years for a north Jersey casino to open. 

"That's a reasonable timeline of north Jersey casino gaming to actually come online, given all that must occur up to and including construction," Roberts said.

Sweeney told NJ Advance Media on Monday that the provision "wasn't done in secret"   and it "really doesn't change much of anything."