After Gov. Chris Christie held another news conference earlier in the day to again call on Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto to post a bill that would allow for a state takeover of Atlantic City's finances, Prieto unveiled an alternative measure late Wednesday night that is scheduled to appear in committee Thursday morning.
Prieto’s bill, which was set to be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee at 10 a.m. Thursday, is similar to the measure backed by Christie and sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) in that it allows casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes to help pay down the city’s debt.
But as Prieto (D-Secaucus) has said he believes the initial takeover bill goes too far and threatens existing collective bargaining contracts, his measure would include the creation of a five-member “Atlantic City Planning Committee” featuring the city’s mayor and council president that would, among other things, be able to negotiate the terms of most public contracts without complete state oversight.
“Collective bargaining and worker rights cannot be the first thing on the chopping block,” Prieto said. “The expert committee created under this bill would be given a year to use its sweeping power to cut spending, save money and restore Atlantic City to sound financial condition. If it does not meet specific benchmarks, more draconian steps could rightly be taken, but worker rights must first be valued.”
Though Atlantic City was set to run out of money Friday, prompting the threat of a municipal government shutdown, the city council voted to temporarily extend its pay period Wednesday night by two weeks, effectively buying the city a little extra time to hammer out a compromise.
But Christie has repeatedly said that unless Sweeney’s version of the takeover bill is presented to him, he won’t sign it. He has even gone as far as to say that if the original bill is not posted by Prieto, he will campaign against a voter referendum this fall to expand casino gaming beyond Atlantic City, an idea he has previously supported.
Christie added that he believes Prieto has placed the interests of public unions ahead of the needs of both the city and state.
“We understand exactly what this is: The speaker does not object to the state coming in and taking over significant responsibility,” Christie said Wednesday afternoon at a news conference in Atlantic City alongside Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson. “Just do not hurt his political friends. This is about a much bigger issue, everybody. This is about the full faith and credit of New Jersey’s cities. Atlantic City will just be the beginning. We have a plan to fix it and stop the harm. We need to implement that plan right away.”
Christie also criticized Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, who he says previously agreed to the takeover deal as proposed and then backtracked.
“There’s no purpose in meeting with a liar,” Christie said when asked why he didn’t meet with Guardian on Wednesday.
Still, Prieto thinks his latest bill is one that will satisfy all parties.
“Nothing in the bill prevents the governor from also using his existing authority to help Atlantic City, including using transitional aid agreements to compel financial actions,” said Prieto. “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.”