The clock’s ticking for Atlantic City. Gov. Chris Christie last Friday signed into law a respite for the casino capital — 150 more days to balance its budget before the state assumes control. The governor is mocking the mayor and his chances to fill a $44 million budget gap on time. And legislative leaders are still sore. State Senate President Steve Sweeney called the process a waste of time. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto defended his role in reshaping the legislation in an interview with NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.
Aron: Mr. Speaker, the Atlantic City rescue bill saga involved a lot of fighting and name calling. Was it worth it?
Prieto: Well, listen, I wouldn’t call it a saga. I never called anybody names. Was it worthwhile? Absolutely. Atlantic City got an opportunity to right its ship and be able to get a balance calendar year 2017 budget and plan for five years and we gave them some tools and resources for them to be able to do that. The administration feels confident that they can put forward a good plan so I think it was definitely worth it. A state takeover immediately wasn’t the right thing to do.
Aron: Senate President Steve Sweeney was in this chair two days ago and he said that there was really only one change from the original bill that passed the Senate that called for an immediate takeover and that was to give Atlantic City 150 days. He said he offered you 130 days, so you didn’t really get much was the implication. How do you respond to that?
Prieto: Well, there were over 23 pages of amendments, so it is the same bill, absolutely, definitely not. There were many, many things in the bill which I can go into detail, but the 130 days was a press release that actually accompanied cutting half the per capita that was not feasible or doable so that actually, and it was never in the bill. So, the actual bill was a straight takeover right away. Many things that changed are there was no opting out in the bill of the PILOT bill, the two bills were tied-bar, one goes along with the other. It’s Atlantic City specific. It had early retirement for every employee in the town. It had aid that would be given for fiscal ’17.
Aron: He says one change. You say 23 pages worth of amendments.
Prieto: I tell you those are facts. There were 23 pages of amendments.
Aron: You also say there was no real fighting or name calling, but that’s not the way the press saw it. Some of us haven’t seen a fight like that in the State House in years. Did you ever feel that your speakership was in jeopardy?
Prieto: I don’t know. Where I come from, a fight is quite a lot different so I guess maybe our definition…
Aron: What, Cuba or Secaucus?
Prieto: Cuba and Hudson County, literally. So I don’t call it as that. I would tell you I think it was the right thing to do as a legislative body. I think the Assembly has a right to do its due diligence and put the best legislation forward and I think we accomplished that.
Aron: Some people are saying this was about the Assembly wanting a seat at the table. Actually Sweeney said the other day they already have a seat at the table, the constitution gives them a seat at the table. Do you feel that you were trying to assert the prerogatives of the Assembly in this?
Prieto: I always have said the Assembly under my leadership was going to be relevant and we were going to make a difference and without us nothing could get accomplished. We needed to be part of that negotiation. Part of it, and I feel that we did, we had a lot of input as I mentioned before there were 23 pages of amendments that made this a better bill, a bill that gave the ability. Really we need to move forward from Atlantic City.
Aron: But we are moving forward. The governor chided Atlantic City yesterday for five days having passed without any new plan because the Senate president said he’s not overly optimistic that Atlantic City can meet the benchmarks needed in 150 days. What do you think’s going to happen in 150 days?
Prieto: I’m very optimistic and the governing body felt good about their ability to right their ship and I’m rooting for them to succeed. I would tell you that if somebody’s rooting for failure, I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. But like I said, I think Atlantic City deserved an opportunity and obviously I hope they get it accomplished.
Aron: The governor said just yesterday this whole fight was unnecessary and hurt Atlantic City.
Prieto: I would beg to differ and I would tell you it gave Atlantic City an ability. It would have put Atlantic City under a takeover. It would have taken the civil liberties from those residents, the voice of the people that elect those governing body wouldn’t have been there for them. So I think it gives them an opportunity and that’s all that we were looking to do.
Aron: The next big thing in the Legislature, we assume, is going to be the Transportation Trust Fund. Senate President Sweeney said here that the two of you have spoken about this. Have you spoken to him about this?
Prieto: Yeah, we have spoken and we’ve been talking about the Transportation Trust Fund for over two years and you, Michael, know I sat with you and I talked about the T word before anybody. I’ve been out in front about the Transportation Trust Fund from the beginning, that we needed a sustainable, reoccurring revenue to be able to …
Aron: Like a gas tax?
Prieto: Like a gas tax and I talked about it and to incorporate other things in it to make sure that everybody could vote for it. So I’ve been probably, if not the biggest advocate, one of the biggest advocates.
Aron: So is a deal still likely in the month of June?
Prieto: We need to. We need to get something accomplished as July 1 is the next fiscal year. According to DOT we run out of money in August so we have to do something. Our roads and bridges are in need of repair. We have 11 million residents that ride over those bridges, 36 percent of them are either obsolete or not structurally sound. We need to do better. Every road that you ride on you’ll notice there’s a pothole in them, so we need to get something done.
Aron: We just have a few seconds left, will the governor sign a gas tax?
Prieto: You know, that’s one thing that I would hope he would do the right thing. We want to do something with tax fairness, we want to have everything on the table and hopefully he will make his way to sign a long-lasting Transportation Trust Fund that is the key building block to our economy.