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Governor Ups the Ante in Poker Game Over Future of Atlantic City

Christie offers to continue to support North Jersey gambling if Assembly speaker drops opposition to state takeover of troubled casino resort

christie atlantic city
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Stakes are rising when it comes to casino gambling in the Garden State, as Gov. Chris Christie is betting big that Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto will have to drop his opposition to a full state takeover of Atlantic City as Christie threatens to walk away from an agreement to back casino gambling in North Jersey.

It remains to be seen if either politician will fold or whether some compromise can be worked out in the next few weeks.

Christie’s move is designed to exert maximum pressure on Prieto (D-Hudson), who so far is holding firm against posting the takeover bill.

Prieto has characterized the bill -- which has already passed the Senate with support of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) -- as too severe and a threat to the city’s collectively bargained union contracts. City leaders also oppose the measure even as they have considered a three-week shutdown of municipal operations to help reduce a $100 million budget deficit.

Christie’s ploy poses dilemma

Christie’s new stance, announced yesterday during a State House news conference, forces North Jersey lawmakers who support the casino proposal to confront a new and troublesome dilemma.

Will they continue to think it’s worth standing up for union rights alongside Prieto even if that comes at the expense of new casinos in the Meadowlands or Jersey City -- or possibly both locations – and the thousands of new union construction jobs and economic activity the casinos could generate?

Christie made it clear yesterday that unless the takeover bill and another measure that would provide the city with some short-term financial aid make it to his desk, he will “use every bit of influence I have to make sure the referendum is defeated.”

“This situation is ensuring that the North Jersey referendum for gaming will be defeated this fall,” Christie said. “There is no way the people of this state will approve an expansion of gaming when the city government in the only city where gaming is allowed is ready to go down the toilet.”

“And so for all of these legislators in the northern part of the state who have been on my back for six and a half years to approve North Jersey gaming, they should stop talking to me and go down the hall and talk to the speaker and tell him to stop setting up a situation where this referendum has no chance of winning,” he said.

Christie also said bankruptcy is not an option for Atlantic City because it threatens the credit rating of the state’s other fiscally challenged cities. And he ticked off a list of the things that he said can’t be reversed without the full takeover he’s seeking.

They including outsourcing city trash collections and ending employee health plans that are more generous than those offered other state workers. Renegotiating labor deals that have allowed 119 city employees to collect annual paychecks worth over $100,000 is another step that can only be accomplished with a full state takeover, he said.

Prieto rejects trade-off

Prieto issued an immediate response, saying Christie’s threat to pull back his support for the casino-expansion referendum would only hurt Atlantic City more in the long run. That’s because the current proposal, if passed, guarantees some of the revenue that would be raised from gambling in North Jersey would be returned to Atlantic City as financial relief, he said.

“Gov. Christie can campaign as he chooses,” Prieto said. “It wouldn’t be his first flip-flop.”

Prieto said he remains willing to negotiate a compromise with Christie on Atlantic City’s fiscal issues, but that he was also sticking to “core principles.”

“Whether the governor likes it or not, he cannot break collective bargaining without likely violating federal and state constitutional rights,” Prieto said. “Government should not be in the business of taking rights away from people.”

Problem for Sweeney

Christie’s new position, meanwhile, also makes things more difficult for Sweeney, who has agreed with Christie that only a full state takeover can fix Atlantic City’s problems.

Sweeney is widely considered to be planning his own run for governor in 2017, and he’s worked hard in recent years to repair his relationship with public-sector unions after working with Christie in 2011 on legislation that forced state workers to pay more for both their pensions and healthcare coverage.

Now he’s back in alignment with Christie while Prieto stakes out the pro-union position.

A spokesman for Sweeney declined comment on Christie’s announcement yesterday.

Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University political science professor, said Sweeney appears to be “trying to act like the adult in the room” because he knows Atlantic City’s deep financial problems are unlikely to be resolved without union givebacks.

But in threatening to work against the referendum, Hale said, Christie has managed to score points against both Sweeney and another likely 2017 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is an ally of Prieto.

Fulop would ostensibly run for governor as a fresh face who is not burdened by backroom State House politics.

Christie yesterday portrayed Fulop as being behind Prieto’s opposition, which mayor has denied, but Hale said the damage had already been done.

“He’s bringing Fulop into the fight,” Hale said. “He’s painting Fulop as a North Jersey hack.”

In an odd twist, Christie’s potential opposition to the referendum could provide more incentive for Atlantic City officials to dig in even deeper against the state takeover because they also staunchly oppose the referendum, seeing it as a threat to the remaining casino jobs in Atlantic City.

Christie has seen his own popularity plummet since his 2013 landslide reelection win, something political analysts chalked up to the fact that he largely ignored state issues while unsuccessfully seeking the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination over the last year.

But his support for the referendum is still considered valuable, since early public-opinion polls have suggested it will be a very tight vote.

Asked whether Atlantic City officials have more to gain now by continuing to back Prieto in the takeover feud, since it could make it more likely that the referendum question goes down, Christie said such an approach would be “completely cynical.”

“I find it hard to believe that they would allow an entire city government to go down the toilet in order to prevent North Jersey gaming, with the ripple effect it would have on other municipalities in the state and on the economy in their region,” he said. “If they’re that cynical then we might as just close the whole shop up here and not worry about doing anything else.”

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