TRENTON, New Jersey — New Jersey lawmakers passed a package of bills Thursday to help Atlantic City and its struggling casinos and schools, and sent it to Gov. Chris Christie.
The most important of the five bills approved by the state Senate would let Atlantic City's eight casinos make payments in lieu of taxes for 15 years, allowing the gambling halls to know exactly how much they owe instead of facing huge potential increases each year.
Others would create new state education aid just for Atlantic City (but do 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.
"This plan will help address the immediate fiscal crisis triggered by the multiple casino closings and downturn in the gaming industry," said Senate President Steve Sweeney. "It will help stop the hemorrhaging and bring stability to Atlantic City's finances and more predictability to the city's revenues. We need to take immediate action to stabilize the existing workforce, the casinos, property taxpayers and the entire community."
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 to other parts of the state.
The payment-in-lieu-of-taxes 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 Caesars' 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. Bally'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.
Lawmakers amended the bill to provide that any casino asked to pay more 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, eliminating a vexing financial uncertainty for Atlantic City each year.
The Senate also approved a bill to allow smaller casinos with as few as 200 hotel rooms (the current minimum is 500) under a pilot program to create so-called "boutique" casinos. But the state Assembly has yet to vote on it, and Atlantic City casino executives generally oppose it.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC