Protesters disrupt hearing on Atlantic City takeover bill

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A state senate committee approved two new bills to keep the city running, including a proposed state takeover. (WPVI)

Protesters disrupted a state Senate hearing Thursday on the proposed state takeover of struggling Atlantic City but failed to prevent the proposal from moving closer to approval.

Chanting "Stop the takeover!" dozens of protesters who had been bused to the state Capitol forced a brief shutdown of the proceeding after a community activist who refused to stop testifying was escorted from the room by a state trooper.

"I'm not finished," said Steve Young, who leads the Atlantic City chapter of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. "I will not stop."

That prompted Sen. Teresa Ruiz to gavel the hearing to a halt as Young left the room, with a trooper's arm around his shoulder. He was charged with defiant trespass and disorderly conduct, and he was released with a summons to appear in court later.

"The state's taking everything away from us. Now they want to take away our right to speak? I'm going to fight for that," Young said afterward. "You should not be taken out in handcuffs for exercising your right."

The hearing resumed a short time later, with the committee advancing the bill to a vote next week in the full Senate. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto has not yet scheduled votes in his chamber, holding out for a bill that does not allow the state to break police, firefighter and other public employee contracts.

The state takeover would strip Atlantic City of most of its power and would give the state the right to break contracts, dissolve agencies and sell off city assets and land. The senate committee on Thursday also advanced a bill that would let the casinos make payments in lieu of taxes in return for not filing tax appeals with the city.

The state would hold hostage tens of millions of dollars in state aid until Atlantic City adopts a fiscal austerity plan that the state considers acceptable.

Moody's says Atlantic City will run out of money in the next few weeks if the two measures aren't approved.

Before the protesters began chanting, Young objected to the takeover plan, which would give the state vast authority over Atlantic City's finances and take away most of its decision-making power.

"For you to take away our rights, if President Barack Obama did this to the state of New Jersey, there would be a civil war," Young said. "That's how we feel. We're at war against what what's going on here."

Mayor Don Guardian called the takeover bill a "one-sided surrender of our responsibilities as local leaders to the governor and his administration. It deprives the residents of Atlantic City of even the most modest elements of self-government."

The mayor also warned that the seaside gambling resort moves closer to bankruptcy each day that state officials refuse to help it.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Steve Sweeney, the Democratic president of the Senate, support the takeover, saying Atlantic City needs to do more to tame its finances. Guardian, a Republican, says his administration cut $25 million from last year's budget and will cut the same amount this year while acknowledging more needs to be done.

The city's finances have spiraled downward over the last decade as its casino industry cratered; four of its 12 casinos shut down in 2014, and Atlantic City's casino revenue has plunged from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $2.56 billion last year.


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