By David Cruz
The gauntlet in the basement hallway leading to the State House was especially thick today. It’s the 11th hour in the budget process, of course, but there are over 100 bills on the agenda today, covering everything from standardized testing to residency requirements for new cops and firefighters — a dizzying workday for even the most seasoned legislator.
“Hopefully before midnight we’ll be home. I’ve left here at 5 in the morning the next day. Hopefully, this won’t be one of those days,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.
“That’s what your job is, to listen to people. You’re the representative of the people. It’s not about me; it’s not about you; it’s about the people,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick.
The budget may be a fait accompli but the other bills are equally important and affect towns, big and small, from Essex to Ocean, and everywhere in between. Among them is a package intended to help stabilize Atlantic City, which has lost four casinos in the past year and is in danger of seeing a mass exodus. The bills cover tax policy for the casinos and shifts other funds directly to the city for tax relief. Former Atlantic City Mayor Jim Whelan is a sponsor.
“It creates a floor below which the casinos will not go, in terms of their contributions of taxes for this city,” Sen. Whelan said. “And more importantly it provides predictability for both the casinos — they’ll know how much they’re going to have to pay — and the city and county government, they’ll know how much they’re getting from the casinos going forward.”
But some Democrats are wary of throwing good money after bad in a city with a history of political chicanery and straight up incompetence. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo says he’ll support the bills but sees expansion of gaming to North Jersey as a better fix.
“Clearly Atlantic City is an important part of our state economy but there’s been a lot of mistakes made there over the years by local government and others, including the operators of the casinos that have led to the fiscal problems that they’re experiencing today,” Sarlo said.
Other bills will try to make it so that companies that get fined for doing bad — ExxonMobil — can’t turn around and write off the fines on their taxes at the end of the year.
“That’s very important but it doesn’t matter, quite frankly, because Christie’s settlement says their damages are alleged so this bill won’t help. They’ll be able to write it off anyway, unless we get the court to reject the settlement and that’s what I’m determined to do,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak.
Lawmakers also want to let municipalities require rookie cops and firefighters to live in the towns they work in, conscious of deteriorating relations between cops and residents in especially urban centers.
“This will give them a background, moving forward, to know the community and understand the community and build up relationships as well instead of driving in for eight hours and then driving back home,” said Sen. Dick Codey.
With crowds proving a bit unwieldy, security did what it could to keep the public and the press in line.
When asked if this season any sillier than any other silly season, Sen. Ron L. Rice said, “It’s not really any sillier, it’s different.”
The final player in this game is the governor, who — over the next few days — will pull out his veto pen and decide what bills live and what bills die.