Chaos engulfs effort to enact Atlantic City aid package

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New Jersey lawmakers are debating a plan that would help Atlantic City climb out of its financial crisis. (WPVI)

New Jersey's tortured effort to help Atlantic City avoid going broke devolved into chaos Thursday as a planned vote was canceled, and leaders disagreed over whether an effort to seek a compromise deal was in the offing.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto called off a vote on one of two rival aid bills that was scheduled to be heard on Thursday and there was a dispute over whether lawmakers would meet Friday to find a compromise.

Assemblyman Louis Greenwald said Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney, both Democrats, would meet Friday in search of a compromise as the teetering seaside gambling resort edges ever closer to insolvency. But Sweeney flatly denied this was the case.

"There is no meeting planned for tomorrow to discuss any legislation related to Atlantic City," Sweeney said.

Thursday had been expected to at least shed some light on where the aid package was headed. But if anything, the impasse grew even deeper. Prieto had planned to put his bill up for a vote at 11 a.m. Before Prieto canceled the vote, leaders were said to be furiously counting potential votes.

But even if it passes on its next opportunity next Wednesday, it is considered to be dead on arrival in the Senate, where Sweeney is insisting on his own measure. That package is backed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has said it is the only one he will sign.

The bills differ in how long they would give Atlantic City to stabilize its finances before the state would take over. Sweeney's gives Atlantic City 130 days to shape up, while Prieto's would give the city as long as two years before a full state takeover of its finances and major decision-making power would kick in.

In the meantime, Atlantic City's circumstances grow more dire. Thomas "T.J." Moynihan, head of the city's police union, said workers are feeling the strain.

"It's been really stressful," he said. "We haven't been paid in a month; we finally get paid tomorrow, which will be great. But to add this stress on top of the jobs we already do, putting our lives on the line, it's really frustrating."

Prieto has refused to back the Senate bill, largely because it would allow the state to unilaterally break union contracts. But even his own bill would allow that if the city does not meet certain performance benchmarks after two years.

Both bills include a provision to let the city's eight casinos make payments in lieu of taxes in return for not appealing their tax assessments. The casinos would benefit from cost-certainty in knowing what their annual expenses will be, and the city would benefit by not having to deal with the tax appeals that casinos have used to devastating effect over the past 10 years to blow huge holes in the city budget as the value of their gambling halls declined.

Atlantic City's finances have worsened over the past 10 years as its casino industry contracted; four of its 12 casinos shut down in 2014, and casino revenue plunged from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $2.56 billion last year.


Associated Press writer Michael Catalini contributed to this story.


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