Gov. Chris Christie pledged to work with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) yesterday to find an immediate solution to Atlantic City’s economic woes -- after conditionally vetoing three bills that sought to stabilize the city’s precarious finances.
Christie faces near-universal criticism for failing to take decisive action on them nearly five months after state lawmakers passed the legislative package designed to quickly infuse the city’s coffers with badly needed funds.
Stakeholders in Atlantic City and Atlantic County have been waiting since June to learn whether Christie would allow the city to charge casinos a predetermined payment in lieu of property taxes (PILOT), a move that would keep casinos from challenging their tax burdens at a time when their collective assessed value dropped more than $3 billion between 2014 and 2015.
But,Christie waited on a 1 p.m. deadline yesterday to conditionally veto the bill until legislators establish a state agency to collect and hold the payments and city officials submit a detailed plan to prove they can properly manage the money. Christie also conditionally vetoed two other bills diverting $120 million to the city from the Casino Redevelopment Authority and the Atlantic City Alliance tourism-marketing agency for the next two years only if Trenton passes his version of the PILOT bill.
In a statement, the governor said the bills don’t go far enough to create “renewed, long-term” prosperity.
“Regrettably, many of the City’s key stakeholders have failed to embrace the concepts of fiscal restraint and strong leadership, and instead have settled on a course toward self-preservation and vacillation,” he wrote, without naming his targets.
Christie did act on two bills that don’t directly address the city’s general finances. He vetoed one that would have required casinos to extend “suitable” healthcare and retirement benefits to workers as a condition of licensure, and he signed another that authorizes supplemental aid to the city’s school district.
Of the five bills, the PILOT proposal was the centerpiece and the most controversial. Advocates for the city strongly support it because fixed payments from casinos mean residents’ property taxes won’t fluctuate based on whether the courts mandate tax refunds to casinos that win their appeals. Proponents include Mayor Don Guardian, the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and Democratic state representatives for the district.
Republican leaders at the county and local municipal levels – some of whom actually did recommend a conditional veto -- oppose the bill as written because they want the county to receive a larger share of the payments, especially in light of the fact that its taxpayers have to make up for what the city can no longer contribute in a post gaming-revenue world. Regardless of their position, all of them need an answer so they can budget for the next fiscal year, and the reaction yesterday was one of overwhelming frustration.
A spokesperson for Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Northfield), a primary sponsor whose district includes Atlantic City, said, “The bill has been sitting on his desk since the end of June. Now it’s November. What happened in that time to give us some feedback on the bill?”
Back in August, the Casino Association of New Jersey published a statement that read, in part, “We understand this legislation is tough medicine for many parties involved, the casinos included, but the truth is that we cannot afford inaction. Every day that the proposed legislation is not adopted … jeopardizes the stability sought to be achieved by the legislation package, threatening non-casino Atlantic City businesses and residents and taxpayers across the county.”
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) said in a statement that Christie was choosing to pander to voters across the country rather than focusing on the people who need him in New Jersey.
And even Republican Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, who once called the bill “one of the worst pieces of legislation that anyone has ever seen,” complained to the media yesterday about the governor’s conditional veto.
Christie appointed an emergency manager in January to recommend a financial strategy for the city, and some observers speculate the governor may have wanted to hold out for some signs of progress on the manager’s negotiations to restructure the city’s overwhelming debt But the manager has only issued one public report, in March, and critics of the governor are more likely to blame the lag on the presidential hopeful’s attendance record in the state over the past few months -- an opinion that’s bolstered by the fact he acted on 24 bills yesterday that the Legislature passed in the spring.