Against Trickle of Assembly Opposition, Sweeney Defends A.C. Takeover

JT Aregood, Politicker NJ

TRENTON — With the state takeover of Atlantic City’s finances going to a vote in the Assembly, Senate sponsor Steve Sweeney (D-3) chose not to strike back against his Assembly counterpart Vince Prieto (D-32) Monday. Prieto has been a voluble critic of the legislation for the broad powers it would give the state to renegotiate or terminate collective bargaining agreements, and several Assembly members have come out in support of the speaker against the takeover.

Asked about the feud with Prieto at a press conference Monday, Sweeney parried the question by revisiting Governor Chris Christie’s pocket veto of a payment in lieu of taxes agreement for Atlantic City’s remaining casinos that Sweeney co-sponsored. That bill would stem the losses to the city’s ratable base from repeated casino tax appeals, and is now joined with the takeover bill. Sweeney said that he sees no alternatives to the choice between a takeover and a bankruptcy.

“We passed the bill in the Senate. It’s up to the Assembly and the governor,” Sweeney said. “Obviously Atlantic City, I think, has major problems. I was not happy when the governor vetoed my PILOT legislation.”

“We’re out of time, and bankruptcy will have an impact on many cities throughout the state,” he added.

Sweeney did not address reports of a Senate amendment to the PILOT bill that would allow the casinos to opt out of the program and potentially make further appeals if casino gaming expands into North Jersey. Sweeney has led the charge in the push for two new casino locations above the Raritan.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) joined Assembly members John McKeon (D-27), Chris Brown (R-2), and Ralph Caputo (D-28) in criticizing the Senate President’s takeover plan that same day. The takeover and the new draft of the PILOT bill have made for strange bedfellows as members have weighed in against one or both. Sweeney and Christie announced the takeover effort together back in January.

“The Governor would have everyone believe that the only way to save Atlantic City from insolvency is to trample public workers, strip residents of their right to a representative government and sell off city assets, perhaps irrevocably,” Vainieri Huttle wrote in a statement, saying that the state’s existing powers already give Christie the power to make changes to the municipal budget. “Lost in all of this is one important fact that the Speaker pointed out last week – the Governor already possesses nearly all the tools he needs under existing laws and regulations to help Atlantic City.”

Christie has said that he will veto any takeover legislation that differs in any way from the versions of the bills passed in the Senate. Senator Jim Whelan (D-2), who also sponsored the original PILOT bill, said the believes it is “only fair” that the casinos be able to opt out. Losses from casinos going back to conventional property taxes would depend on whether their properties are re-assessed between the time of the PILOT bill’s passage and new casinos breaking ground in North Jersey.

“The Governor has adamantly refused to negotiate with the Assembly or accept any changes to the bills from their current form.  This is an ineffective and dangerous way to govern, especially at such a critical moment,” said Caputo of Christie’s inflexibility. “Not only is it an insult to the entire legislative body, but it’s also hypocritical in light of the amendment the Senate added that would enable casinos to opt out of the PILOT tax agreement if North Jersey casinos open.  This opt-out provision would unravel the entire fabric of the PILOT bill and threaten to destabilize Atlantic City’s tax base all over again.”