Gov. Christie and the Legislature are about to pull the plug on what's left of Atlantic City's economy, but they lack the decency to say so. They're touting tax benefits for all as they ask voters to approve casinos in North Jersey, which would further drain an Atlantic City economy struggling to recover from the recent loss of four of its 12 casinos. "The additional competition will likely cause more casinos to close" in Atlantic City, Moody's Investors Service declared.
The legislation to allow the northern casinos, sponsored by State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), offers the dying resort a morphine drip by requiring some North Jersey casino revenue to go to Atlantic City. But that wouldn't happen for a few years, nor would it undo the economic damage.
In addition to siphoning off Atlantic City's gamblers, Sweeney wants to commandeer its government. Finding a convenient excuse in the city's history of overspending and mismanagement, he has called for a long-term state takeover, an approach that has had invariably poor results in Camden and elsewhere.
Sweeney argues that Atlantic City's budget is too big for its population. That's true to an extent. But he is not accounting for the town's extraordinary public-safety and other costs arising from millions of visitors a year as well as hard-core poverty among residents. Sweeney's plan also ignores the fact that Atlantic City is already under extensive state fiscal oversight.
A takeover would allow the state to overrule Mayor Don Guardian and other local officials who have opposed a sale of the municipal water utility. One possible buyer, New Jersey American Water, has been represented by lobbyist Philip Norcross, a brother of South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross.
The proposed North Jersey casinos, meanwhile, are mainly about pleasing political bosses in Hudson and Essex Counties, not what's good for the state. Even in South Jersey, only a few legislators have been courageous enough to oppose the scheme. Those favoring it argue that the new casinos would capture money being spent in nearby New York and Pennsylvania casinos. But revenues will only decline as gambling continues to proliferate in nearby states.
Yet another bill passed by the Legislature last week will allow Atlantic City's casinos to pay a total of about $20 million a year less in property taxes, depending on revenues. That could leave other property owners to pick up the difference.
Christie and the Legislature have proven incapable of solving Atlantic City's problems. Sweeney even whined about Trenton's "Atlantic City fatigue." But politicians still like taking money from the gambling industry. Casinos offer a quick fiscal fix, protecting elected officials from making genuine reforms while casino vendors pay tribute to their campaigns.