The ongoing drama over how to help financially struggling Atlantic City turned a new page on Thursday as Gov. Chris Christie said that though he prefers a Senate-passed takeover bill he will listen to other options.
The Assembly judiciary committee unanimously approved a measure that gives the city up to two years before a full state takeover in exchange for city government meeting financial benchmarks. The Senate bill Christie backs would allow for a state takeover immediately.
Thursday's Assembly hearing saw testimony from labor unions, including the state AFL-CIO and Communication Workers of America, as well as Republican Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and Democratic Council President Marty Small. The measure has the backing of Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who argues that Senate President Steve Sweeney and Christie's takeover bill would end union bargaining and take away city residents' representatives.
Christie said Thursday at a separate news conference that his "door is always open" but that he wants the original bill.
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"I want to fix Atlantic City," he said. "I don't negotiate in public. If the Legislature can't come to a consensus, my door is always open. I told them I want the Sweeney bill as originally passed. Nothing happens until it gets my signature."
Prieto cited casino revenues benefiting the state and other towns through years as a reason to give the city more time to straighten out its finances. It owes about $150 million to Borgata and is estimated to have debts of up to $550 million.
"We all take a lot from them and we need to give them a hand," Prieto said after the hearing.
Prieto said his bill is moving to a vote by the full Assembly but didn't specify when. He also said he is "willing to sit with everyone" to negotiate a bill.
On Wednesday, Sweeney proposed an amendment to the initial takeover legislation to give the city 130 days before a takeover. Christie's office declined comment. Prieto questioned whether the idea treated Atlantic City fairly.
Prieto's bill would allow casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes, like the Sweeney and Christie measure. But unlike that legislation, the measure sets up a five-person committee consisting of three Christie officials and two city officials that would set financial benchmarks Atlantic City must meet. If after two years, the city doesn't meet those benchmarks, then the state would be given most of the authority to do most of what's in the Senate bill.
The Assembly committee earlier approved Prieto's plan but reconsidered, clarifying city schools will get a share of payments made by casinos in lieu of taxes.