TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers at both the state and federal level took steps today to give a boost to ailing Atlantic City, which has seen a string of casinos close in recent months.
A coalition led by Democratic U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.) sent a letter urging the federal government to fast-track a grant application to provide emergency aid to thousands of workers who lost their jobs when the casinos shuttered.
At the same time, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) formally introduced legislation aiming to stabilize Atlantic City's economy.
"With the multiple casino closings and competitive pressure in the gaming industry, Atlantic City is facing an unprecedented economic challenge," Sweeney said today. "We need to take immediate action to stabilize the existing workforce, the casinos, property taxpayers, and the entire community."
The letter from the state's federal lawmakers asks U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to quickly approve the Atlantic City Re-Employment Initiative, a grant proposal filed by the state last month. The emergency grant would fund training programs for laid-off casino workers, helping them learn new skills to find employment.
Four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos closed this year: the Atlantic Club, Revel, Showboat, and Trump Plaza. More than 8,000 workers lost their jobs.
"We strongly support the plan put forward by the New Jersey Division of Labor and Workforce Development and are confident that, in coordination with the local workforce investment board, this funding will be utilized to increase occupational skills and reemploy these workers," the letter read. "We urge your urgent and expedited attention to this proposal, as thousands of New Jersey families are in need."
The application mentions only the 6,500 workers laid off at Revel, Showboat, and Trump Plaza, but Booker spokeswoman Monique Waters said it features language that would also include Atlantic Club employees.
The other congressmen who signed the letter are: Donald Norcross (D-1st Dist.), Jon Runyan (R-3rd), Chris Smith (R-4th), Frank Pallone (D-6th), Albio Sires (D-8th), Bill Pascrell (D-9th), Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th), and Rush Holt (D-12th).
Only three congressmen did not: Scott Garrett (R-5th Dist.), Leonard Lance (R-7th), and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th).
Lance spokesman John Byers said the congressman's staff had not heard of the letter.
Frelinghuysen's legislative director, Steve Wilson, said the congressman plans to add his name to it.
As for the legislation introduced today, it stems from an announcement Sweeney made in November saying he would soon present a plan to help prevent Atlantic City from "becoming Detroit." The state Senate president said today that "conditions have only gotten worse" since then.
Sweeney noted that while the city's collective tax base was worth $20.5 billion in 2010, Mayor Don Guardian said the ratable base would plummet to $9 billion next year. He also cited that Atlantic City had brought in $4.8 billion in gross gaming revenue by this time of the year in 2006, but gaming revenue was only $2.1 billion by September of this year.
"Atlantic City will have to make sacrifices to realize its potential," said Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor who now represents the area in the state Senate. "The municipal government will have to tighten its belt and learn to operate with greater efficiency."
If passed, the legislation would:
• Authorize casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes in the amount of $150 million for the first two years and obligate guaranteed tax payments over the next 15 years. Casino revenue supports locals schools and social programs, such as property tax relief for seniors, medical assistance, and housing for disabled residents.
• Redirect about $25 million to $30 million a year from the investment alternative tax to pay down the city’s debt. Casinos pay a 1.25 percent on gross gaming revenues and 2.5 percent on internet gaming revenues to pay for economic development programs.
• Require casino operators to "provide a baseline health care and retirement package" for their workers.
The plan also calls for cutting $72 million from the $377 million it takes to operate the city's government and school district.
Gov. Chris Christie and other state officials have also been searching for months to find ways to revitalize Atlantic City, which has been hurt by competition from casinos that opened in neighboring states over the last few years.
Their efforts include another bid to legalize sports betting at the state's casinos and racetracks that is currently being challenged in federal court, as well as a possible plan to open a casino in north Jersey and give some profits to Atlantic City.