Christie on alternative Atlantic City plan pushed by Assembly foe: ‘He thinks we’re all stupid’
TRENTON — Speaker Vincent Prieto shepherded his version of the Atlantic City intervention through an Assembly committee Thursday, despite Gov. Chris Christie declaring that he would not sign it into law, even if it made it to his desk.
Prieto, D-Hudson, indicated he would call an Assembly voting session in the first half of next week to consider the bill, which was endorsed unanimously — though by the Judiciary Committee, an unusual venue for a bill that would seemingly belong before the budget, local government or tourism panels.
There’s an Assembly voting session Thursday afternoon, but the bill surely doesn’t have the supermajority support — 60 votes out of 80 — to declare the emergency that would be needed to pass it. It’s unclear whether it will have the simple majority needed to pass, given that Democrats from South Jersey are opposed because they favor the version Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Christie agreed upon.
“I think it’s a good bill. It’s a work in progress,” Prieto said. “I give my word here: I’ll put a voting session to get this bill up Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of next week. I want movement. I want compromise. And I am always willing to make this a better bill.”
Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, who sponsors the version Prieto opposes that has already passed the Senate, called it stunning that Prieto’s proposal would allow for the termination of collectively bargaining contracts, though not until mid-2018 at the earliest.
“The presence of this concept in my bill is supposed to have been the cause of much of the inability for all parties to come to a resolution on this issue,” Greenwald said. “If this is a core principle which must never be touched under any circumstance, I am worried that its inclusion in your bill means that over the last few weeks we have been putting politics and theatrics before people and principle.”
Prieto’s plan calls for a planning committee to be formed by summer to develop a five-year plan for Atlantic City; three of the members would be from the Christie administration. That panel would have to set benchmarks and issue reports to a special master appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.
If the benchmarks aren’t met the first year, the planning committee could then dissolve Atlantic City departments that aren’t related to public safety, veto City Council actions and sell or lease city assets. If benchmarks aren’t met after two years, contracts could be broken, including with public worker unions that represent city employees.
“Then most of what you would see in what was called the takeover bill would actually go into effect,” Prieto said. “And I think everybody is OK with that, for the reason being it’s not all up front. It gives an opportunity. It gives opportunity for the mayor and council to do their thing. It gives an opportunity for the residents of that town to have a voice in what they say.”
“If after year two, the next level if you will of the goals are not being met, well, then we get to the point where, you know, no holds barred," said Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex.
Christie said that approach is ineffective and noted it would push off decisions about how to handle union contracts until after his term as governor ends.
“What happens three years from now? What’s going to be different three years from now than it is today? Quiz. Right. I won’t be here anymore,” Christie said. “Why do you think he gave the governor that authority three years from now? Because I will be done in 20 months. And he’s counting on the fact that he’ll have a Democrat who is beholden to the public sector unions who would never dare to use that authority. He thinks we’re all stupid.”
“It’s a desperate effort for him to protect his political patrons, rather than the citizens of the state,” said Christie, who called Prieto’s plan a “union protection bill.”
The bill also provides the city around $120 million a year in payments from casinos, to stabilize its finances. That money was also approved by the Senate, though in separate legislation.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee passed the bill 7-0, including support from two Republicans -- Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon, and Chris Brown, R-Atlantic. Brown has been cited by Democrats in Atlantic City as a stalwart supporter in their fight against the bill, which has the support of the South Jersey Democrats.
“We’re here today to be for something, to suggest our own solution and to bring the conversation further along so that ultimately everyone can act like adults, end the press conferences, end the nastiness and work together," Brown said.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and City Council President Marty Small testified in favor of the bill, which Small called the city's idea. They said they know they have to cede more control of city operations but want to negotiate the terms and retain a voice.
“We sit at that table. Unfortunately the seat that’s missing is the governor’s," Guardian said. He noted the city has avoided a partial shutdown this Friday, but the city expects to run out of money by June. "We bought some time. All nine unions have agreed to be paid once a month, rather than every 14 days. But it’s short-term.”
“If we don’t do what we have to do, you have every right to come in and do what you have to do," Small said of Prieto's benchmark proposal. "But you don’t just do it for the sake of doing it and don’t want to compromise.”
A long line of union officials testified in favor of Prieto's bill. Charles Wowkanech, the president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, said unions were instrumental in creating and growing Atlantic City as a casino destination -- from the approval of gaming in 1976 to expanding it to 24 hours a day, building a convention center and bringing a tunnel to its marina district -- and that it's "an absolute disgrace" how they're treated in the Senate bill.
“Organized labor not only built the city but runs the city," Wowkanech said
"If there was any illusion any longer about why the speaker was doing this, I think the comments by AFL-CIO President Wowkanech made it really clear," Christie said. "... He's taking his marching orders from these kind of folks."
Michael Symons has covered the Statehouse since 2000. He can be reached at email@example.com or @MichaelSymons_ on Twitter.