It's hard to have much sympathy for New Jersey casinos' largely self-inflicted troubles, especially when they are causing so much pain for others. But the state's political leaders are opening their hearts - and the taxpayers' wallets.
Having lost four casinos this year and with another teetering on the brink, Atlantic City's gambling sector is surely in decline. It is not the government's role to bail it out. Yet under the threat that matters could get even worse, that is what the government is doing.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D., Atlantic) are fast-tracking legislation to give casinos a property-tax break. By heading off further appeals to reduce casinos' assessed property values, the bills are supposed to stabilize revenues supporting Atlantic City's outrageously high $260 million budget.
Few others will enjoy the same luxury. The legislation would force other property owners throughout Atlantic County to pay more in taxes. This added burden would come as those communities are struggling to help thousands of residents who have lost casino jobs.
Under the legislation, which was held last week but could come up for a vote next month, the casinos would collectively pay $150 million in annual property taxes for two years and $120 million for 13 years thereafter. The tab could drop to $75 million if yearly gaming revenues fall as low as $1.4 billion.
Last year, before a third of them closed, the casinos paid $210 million in property taxes. Over the last two years, they have successfully appealed their property assessments, resulting in a 53 percent increase for every other taxpayer in the city. The shift is crushing Atlantic City, itself a model of inefficiency and frivolous expenditures. Fearing further appeals and attempting to appease Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor threatening to shutter a fifth casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, legislators are bending to the industry's will.
The Sweeney-Mazzeo bill would cut taxes by almost $30 million a year for three casinos, according to calculations by the Golden Nugget, a smaller casino that threatened to sue to stop the legislation. The Nugget relented after legislators agreed to ensure that its taxes, like the other casinos', wouldn't go up next year.
Such consideration was not afforded to the people who have to live with the consequences of the giveaway. Giving select property owners a tax break virtually assures that others will have to pay more.
The Legislature would be wiser to focus on helping the people of the region rather than an industry that lobbied to open competing venues and saturated itself into a crisis.
For its part, the city promises to cut both its municipal and school budgets. And some tax revenue will be shifted to help the city and schools pay their bills.