Measures to help Atlantic City's finances, schools and casinos are making their way through the New Jersey Legislature.
The state Assembly on Thursday approved a package of five bills for the struggling seaside resort. The most important would let its eight casinos make payments in lieu of taxes for 15 years, letting them know exactly how much they owe instead of facing huge potential increases each year.
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Others would create new state education aid just for Atlantic City (but not say how much); mandate health insurance and retirement benefits for casino workers (without mandating specific amounts of coverage); divert alternative investment taxes the casinos now pay for redevelopment projects to help pay down Atlantic City's debt; and eliminate the Atlantic City Alliance and use its $30 million annual budget for other, as-yet undetermined ways to help the city.
The measures were proposed last fall and were set for a final vote just before Christmas, but were shelved at the last moment.
"This bill and the entire package was introduced to stop the immediate bleeding in Atlantic City and the surrounding region," said Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, an Atlantic County Democrat. "Casino closings coupled with large refunds due to casinos by the city have created dire challenges for the city."
The bills come at a time of tremendous upheaval in New Jersey's gambling market. Four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos shut down last year, and state officials are considering whether to let voters decide as soon as November whether to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City to other parts of the state, including the Meadowlands racetrack in East Rutherford, Jersey City and Newark.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney said it's not certain any question will go before voters this fall because legislators can't agree on a proposal.
"You have a free-for-all right now," he said. "You need 24 votes in the Senate. You need 48 in the Assembly. Some legislators, in their wisdom, actually said where to put them. And you know, that creates a problem. We need to have a public conversation about this. If we do it, we want it to be successful."
The so-called PILOT bill would let the casinos collectively pay $150 million for the first two years, and $120 million annually for 13 years, assuming gambling revenue stays within certain ranges in the city.
Calculations made in December, which the casinos say are still in effect, would grant large tax reductions to billionaire Carl Icahn and Caesars Entertainment, two of whose three Atlantic City casinos are in bankruptcy. The Tropicana, which Icahn owns, and the Trump Taj Mahal, which he is soon to acquire, would pay nearly $19 million less in the first year of the plan. Caesars and Harrah's would see a nearly $20 million reduction, though Ballly's, which also is owned by Caesars Entertainment, would see a $2.6 million increase in payments. The Borgata would see a $2.7 million reduction.
That led lawmakers to amend the bill to provide that any casino asked to pay more under the PILOT plan than their tax bill would have been will get an equivalent credit on redevelopment taxes they are obligated to pay the state. Without such a credit, casinos including Resorts and the Golden Nugget would have faced steep increases.
The casinos would no longer be able to appeal their tax payments under the PILOT plan, eliminating a vexing financial uncertainty for Atlantic City each year.
The state Senate is due to vote on the bills on June 25.
Associated Press writer Michael Catalini in Trenton contributed to this report.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC