Posted: Monday, January 10, 2011
By MICHAEL CLARK and JULIET FLETCHER Staff Writers Press of Atlantic City
TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie saw his ambitious plans to reform Atlantic City’s casino and tourism industries reach final legislative approval Monday, setting up a possible remaking of the city as a premiere destination resort.
Lawmakers in the state Assembly and Senate held emergency votes Monday night and approved two bills allowing the state to take over various services in designated sections of the city in an effort to jump-start the resort’s ailing tourism economy.
The bills, pending an expected approval from Gov. Chris Christie, will carve out a tourism district within Atlantic City to be run by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and repeal major regulations currently imposed on the city’s 11 casinos. Many casino regulatory powers would be transferred from the Casino Control Commission to the state Division of Gaming Enforcement.
“From a legislative perspective, this is probably the most significant thing to happen to Atlantic City since gambling was approved,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic.
The bills call for a public-private partnership with casino involvement to devise and fund an Atlantic City marketing plan. They also call for the casinos to continue to subsidize racetrack purses, at least for three years unless a separate proposal allowing Internet gaming in New Jersey becomes law and helps fund the purses.
There was no word of when Christie might sign the bills.
The bill to create a tourism district passed by 71-5 in the Assembly, where the casino deregulation bill passed by 67-9. The Senate approved the tourism district bill 36-1 and approved deregulation 32-3.
Monday’s votes end a grueling legislative process that began when Christie, a Republican, first visited Atlantic City in July to announce his broad plan to overhaul the way Atlantic City does business. Since then, political squabbling, opposition from the city and seemingly endless amendments have dominated daily developments.
Legislators even made amendments Monday just before the votes, requiring procedural moves to allow both houses to vote on the bills immediately after amending them. The amendments spelled out boundaries for the tourism district and included a clause forcing the CRDA to cover any shortfall of deregulatory savings slated to be sent to the horseracing industry.
The district will include major tourism areas such as the Boardwalk and beach; the Marina District; The Walk; and Bader Field, a former municipal airport currently owned by the city. The CRDA will be given 90 days after the bill is enacted to alter the boundaries, which would require a two-thirds vote by the authority’s board.
Mayor Lorenzo Langford adamantly opposed the Marina and Bader Field sections being absorbed by the district. The mayor attended Monday’s Assembly session for much of the day, but left to attend to other city business as the legislative process dragged on into the night.
“I have no expectations. I’m guardedly optimistic,” Langford said early Monday.
It was unclear whether the mayor had changed his feeling on the tourism district bill, which he vehemently opposed during a news conference late last month that featured threats of a federal lawsuit if his concerns were not addressed. Langford did not return several calls seeking comment after the votes Monday.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, updated Langford throughout the day with brief visits to the Assembly’s gallery, where the mayor sat waiting for hours.
“All of my conversations with the mayor have been constructive,” Burzichelli said after the Assembly’s approval. “I told him, ‘I think you did pretty well here.’ I think he still has some reservations.”
Despite the outline of the district’s boundaries, Langford did appear to score victories regarding two concerns he voiced recently. One involved the city’s authority over planning and zoning in the district, which will now be a collaborative effort between the city and the CRDA. He also opposed language related to the district’s law enforcement, which was clarified Monday to appoint a state commander that oversees public safety policy in the zone, but coordinates those efforts with the mayor and city police officials.
Monday’s amendments also include:
- Stripping new and reappointed CRDA members of pension and health benefits, but not salaries.
- Sending proceeds of any potential sale of the Atlantic City International Airport to the eight counties that make up southern New Jersey.
- Subjecting Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority employees to layoffs if their jobs are duplicated by the CRDA, which will absorb the authority.
- Restoring the governor’s power to appoint the Casino Control Commission chair.
- Allowing former CCC employees to get first dibs at jobs they performed that were transferred to the Division of Gaming Enforcement.
- Calling for the CCC or DGE to rule on potential conflicts of interest within 30 days if a laid-off employee accepts work with a casino entity.
- Lessening licensing requirements imposed on some casino investors.
Compromise emerged as a main theme Monday, with most legislators acknowledging there are parts they liked, and others that made them cringe.
Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, was the most outspoken Monday with his disagreements over the bills, including what they contained and how they were formed. Polistina spoke on the Assembly floor just before the vote, blasting Whelan, whom he is expected to challenge in the upcoming Senate race.
“He settled to get something done, instead of getting something done right,” said Polistina, who was interrupted briefly by Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan, D-Union, who interjected with, “Can we stay on the bill?”
In the end, Polistina voted to approve the bill and was added as a primary sponsor, along with his colleague, Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic.
Whelan applauded the bipartisan support, but questioned why Polistina supported the bill only after he became a sponsor.
“He was very critical of these bills before,” he said. “He even voted against them in committee.”
But Polistina and Amodeo took credit for several of Monday’s amendments, which they previously had lobbied for, including the specific district boundaries and halting pension and health benefit payments to new and reappointed CRDA members.
That amendment indicates that even CRDA members, who will see their agency’s power expand dramatically, also had to compromise.
“If you’re waiting for a perfect bill, you’ll never get it,” said James Kehoe, chairman of the CRDA.
Kehoe refused to say whether he fought privately against the amendment, but said he endorsed the bills as a whole and predicted they would help reverse Atlantic City’s downward spiral.
“With this legislation and the completion of Revel,” he said, “Atlantic City is going to have a completed renaissance.”