As Atlantic City Runs Out of Money, Crucial Vote in Assembly
The future of Atlantic City, and with it the finances of many other New Jersey communities, will be determined Thursday in a vote in the Assembly.
Atlantic City is nearly out of cash. If it can’t pay its bills starting in a few weeks, it could default on its debt, which would in turn raise borrowing costs for other distressed cities. The city wants the state’s financial help, but Gov. Chris Christie says he’ll only provide it as part of a state takeover.
That’s where Thursday’s vote in the Assembly comes in. Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, opposes Christie’s plan, which has already passed in the Senate. Prieto has a go-slower alternative that gives the city up to two years to fix its finances before the most draconian aspects of a takeover would kick in.
It’s unclear if Prieto’s plan has the votes needed to pass, given that South Jersey lawmakers favor a faster takeover and Christie is pushing hard on Republicans to stick with him. Senate President Stephen Sweeney predicts the bill will fail and all but demanded that Prieto post the Senate’s bill if it does.
“He should put his bill up for a vote. He really should. And once it doesn’t pass, then he should pass my bill. Otherwise, Atlantic City is going bankrupt. In fact we’re close to it now,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney indicated the Senate wouldn’t vote on Prieto’s bill, even if it passes, because Christie opposes it.
“What’s the sense of doing the political theatrics? Look, we already know the Assembly bill will not be signed by the governor. He already vetoed a bill that gave them two years,” Sweeney said.
“Bottom line is this gridlock and putting a bill up that he knows isn’t going to get signed by the governor, what are you accomplishing?” Sweeney said.
Sweeney and Christie have been taunting Prieto for weeks to post his bill for a vote. The Assembly is scheduled to begin its private caucus meetings at 9 a.m. and its voting session at 11 a.m. — an early start, noteworthy in part because Christie is convening Assembly Republicans for breakfast at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton.
Prieto said his proposal is about policy, not politics.
“The Senate president need not worry about the Assembly’s business, but as he wishes, the bipartisan Assembly compromise bill is going up tomorrow. The Senate bill will not,” Prieto said.
The Assembly vote will shine a spotlight on members of both parties, with Republicans who are often marginalized as their ranks have shrunk to 28 of 80 members suddenly key to the outcome.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, called for the four legislative leaders to meet Thursday at 11 a.m., before the Assembly session, to work out a compromise.
“People expect their leaders to work together during a crisis, not against each other,” Bramnick said.
Sweeney and Prieto could hardly be farther apart, for now. They don’t agree in their public pronouncements about what has happened at private meetings, and a recent column in The Record reported that Sweeney’s ally, South Jersey political boss George Norcross, has broached the prospect of deposing Prieto and installing a new speaker.
Sweeney said he would be willing to change his bill to give Atlantic City 130 days to develop a plan for cutting spending it could implement by year’s end. He says that in private meeting with Prieto on April 20, he offered to extend that an additional 45 days. Prieto says that didn’t happen and that he “wouldn’t have considered it a serious proposal anyway,” according to spokesman Tom Hester.
Asked about meeting with Prieto again on the Atlantic City bill, Sweeney said: “If he wants to talk to me afterwards, I’d be happy to talk to him. I’ll have witnesses in the room this time, I can tell you that.”
Sweeney was even more harshly critical Wednesday of the elected officials in Atlantic City, primarily Mayor Don Guardian, than he was of Prieto:
- “He knew the city was paying way too much and delivering too little. So what did he and the City Council members do about it? They made a mockery out of city governance.”
- On not cutting elected officials’ pay: “Sometimes symbolism matters. Sometimes making a statement that we’re in this together, that we care about you taxpayers of Atlantic City, absolutely matters. That showed you right there they could care less.”
- On Guardian’s position about how much time he’d need to make cuts. “I gave him what he asked for. This is like Whac-A-Mole trying to figure out what to do here.”
- On Atlantic City not implementing a layoff plan last year: “The fact that he withdrew his own layoff plan because he was anticipating revenue – he was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to do this now.’ No, yeah, you have to do it. Your government is too large.”
Guardian, a Republican, said the city has cut 330 employees since January 2014 and made other cost-savings moves but that the property tax base has lost 70 percent of its value in six years.
“The Atlantic City government is not the enemy,” Guardian said. “In the end, we all agree that a financially healthy Atlantic City is good for South Jersey as well as all of New Jersey.”