By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
When the Senate president made a rare appearance on the Assembly floor, it was a sign that the compromise would hold.
When he and the Assembly speaker ducked into the speaker’s office, it was another sign that all was well with the two Atlantic City rescue bills.
Until last week, the two men were on opposite sides of a fight.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as a fight. I would say a good debate, from my point of view. That I wanted to compromise from day one. I didn’t want an immediate takeover and we have accomplished that to give Atlantic City an opportunity to right their ship,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.
Senate President Steve Sweeney wasn’t quite feeling the love, however.
“It was all unnecessary, Michael. It really was. We offered the mayor back in July MOUs that basically did exactly what we’re asking right now, so we basically lost close to a year. Had nothing but negative headlines. Has really damaged the possibility of gaming in northern New Jersey, which was important to everybody. So a great deal of frustration,” he said.
Atlantic City has lost tax ratables and is on the brink of bankruptcy.
The compromise would provide some immediate state aid and stave off a state takeover of city government for five months, while the city tries to cut its budget in half and renegotiate its debt.
City officials are accepting of the agreement.
“It provides the state aid and the casino redirected funds that we most desperately need in order to move on and it puts the ownership of finding corrective measures to reduce our budget, to balance that budget by 2017, in the hands of the people that Atlantic City residents elected, the mayor and city council,” said Mayor Don Guardian.
After so much jawboning about it over the months, the Assembly passed the main rescue bill without debate. The vote was 60 to 12 with one abstention. It then went to the Senate, which produced a brief debate.
“Its not been an easy road to get here, but they are bills that will in fact help tremendously in stabilizing the situation in Atlantic City,” said Sen. Jim Whelan.
The Senate vote on the main bill was 31 to 5. All the no votes in both houses were Republican.
The Republican Assembly leader voted for it because, he said, the city cannot be allowed to just go bankrupt.
“If you go bankrupt that pretty much sends a message that’s going to last a long time. It’s a bad message for Atlantic City. It’s a bad message for New Jersey. We have a bipartisan agreement that hopefully will save Atlantic City and not put pressure on taxpayers outside of Atlantic City. Not everyone agrees, but welcome to Trenton,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick.
“The uncertainty that has hung over Atlantic City all these months has left Atlantic City with a big question mark over its head and this legislation which will move through this house and the Senate and on to the governor’s desk will eliminate that uncertainty,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski.
“After a lot of arguments, going back and forth with Prieto’s bill, Sweeney’s bill, and then we came up with this compromise bill and that’s a sign of good government when that happens,” said Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo.
Gov. Chris Christie last night all signaled he will sign the bills.
“They’re going to do whatever they do tomorrow. Whatever lands on my desk I will look at quickly because there’s no reason to delay. We all know what the issue are here and as long as I have something that I think will ultimately not impact the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey and help save Atlantic City then I’ll do it,” he said.
When asked if he feels vindicated by having won a five month reprieve for the city Prieto said, “Michael, it’s not a five month reprieve. It gives Atlantic City an ability to be able to take care of their own house,” Prieto said.
It appears that this bitter four month fight over the future of Atlantic City is over, but as one old statehouse hand just put it, “it’s the end of the beginning”.