By David Cruz
It ended with a whimper and not a bang. The Atlantic City saga, and its months of stops and starts, ended today with compromise bills clearing the Assembly Judiciary Committee with only one abstention, giving Senate President Steve Sweeney and the governor almost everything they wanted but allowing Speaker Vincent Prieto to emerge — in the minds of some — as a perceived champion of collective bargaining rights and — not insignificantly — a champion of his legislative house. Asked if the turmoil of the past few months was worth it, Prieto was adamant.
“Absolutely, it’s been worth it,” he told reporters. “And I haven’t taken any heat; you guys may write about a lot of heat, but for me, in case you missed it, I’m doing my job. It’s about giving Atlantic City is just respect, for that governing body, for people that elected them, and gives them an opportunity to help them, not take them over.”
The 23 pages of amendments detail a wide-ranging agreement that includes, but is not limited to:
– Gives Atlantic City 150 days to devise a five-year recovery plan
– Provides a bridge loan from the Atlantic City Alliance for 2016 and guarantees state aid thereafter
– Requires a balanced budget by 2017
– Preserves collective bargaining
– Extends early retirement option to all city employees
– No opt out for casino PILOT payments
“I think this is very doable, very livable,” said Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian. “It gives us the charge to move ahead to make sure that our budget is balanced in 2017, but it gives us some immediate help with finances, in terms of the bridge loan from the ACA and provides the extra funding beyond ACA’s two years of $30 million. It removes the opt out; those were real concerns we had about the PILOT bill and, on the other side, I think it’s very fair.”
A chilly handshake after the committee hearing between members of the party leadership gives some indication of how steep and full of pit holes this road has been. Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, who stood with the Senate president on this issue, said he knew a deal was going to get done all along.
“I kind of look at it from the standpoint of what I’ve said throughout this process is that these deals always get done. They get done at the last minute,” he insisted. “This is an offer that we had made about a month and a half ago, and I think this is where we always knew we would end up. We think — more importantly than the trials and tribulations of how the sausage gets made — it’s really about what is the future of Atlantic City and that road can now begin today.”
This bill still has to get through both houses and past the governor’s desk and still allows for a state takeover if the city doesn’t meet its agreed upon benchmarks. The Senate president’s office was crafting an official statement but, as of this moment, sources tell us the general sense is that these bills are essentially the compromise offered months ago, the suggestion being that the Assembly speaker should not be taking any victory laps, an opinion open for debate, at least to some in the lower house.
“I will tell you this about what we learned — what I learned in particular — about Speaker Prieto is that he is someone who says what he means and means what he says and, if you think of how far we’ve come from when we first pointed out that the original bill from the Senate was not in the best interest of Atlantic County families, nor the state, and the compromises that we’ve been able to achieve, I think it’s a real credit to working with him in a bipartisan manner and his steadfast stick-to-itiveness,” added Assemblyman Chris Brown.
You’ve been hearing about it for so long that you may be tempted to think that this vote represents the end of the process. The reality is that the fight to save Atlantic City has just begun.