Panel Recommends NJ Takeover

Gov. Chris Christie proposed a state takeover of services in Atlantic City’s casino district on Wednesday, citing the city government’s history of corruption and failure to deal with increasing blight.

The governor also called for closing or selling the state-owned — and financially struggling — Meadowlands Racetrack, selling the underutilized Izod Center, which has lost its main tenants, the NBA’s Nets and NHL’s Devils, and giving state financial aid to finish the stalled Xanadu shopping-entertainment complex in the Meadowlands.

Christie called for the overhaul to the state’s gaming, sports and entertainment industries in a news conference at the 50-yard line of the billion-dollar New Meadowlands Stadium, backing the recommendations of a special panel he appointed.

“Look, Atlantic City is dying,” Christie said on the home turf of the NFL’s Jets and Giants. “The question is whether you permit the same doctors to continue to treat the patient or bring in new doctors.

“In Atlantic City, you have had a historically corrupt, ineffective, inefficient local government that has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars it has gotten over the years.”

Christie appointed the task force in February to chart a future for the state’s casino and horse racing industries. That panel recommended the creation of a new state authority that would report directly to the governor, and be responsible for safety and cleanliness in and around the casinos, among other things.

Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small said not all of the governor’s recommendations are bad. He said one good idea was the panel’s suggestion that projects by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority be restricted just to Atlantic City, instead of spread statewide as is done now.

“Some things that can be perceived as a negative can become positives,” Small said.

Small did not address Christie’s lack of faith in Atlantic City’s local government. The councilman is awaiting trial in the fall on charges of voter fraud in last year’s Democratic mayoral primary, which he lost. Several other councilmen have gone to jail on corruption charges in recent years.

While casino executives are delighted with the proposals, opponents fear New Jersey will lose business to gaming venues in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

In a major victory for Atlantic City, the task force didn’t endorse placing slot machines at the state’s four race tracks. The racing industry has said it needs slots to stay alive. The casinos have been bitterly fighting the move — even as they paid tens of millions of dollars in subsidies to the tracks in return for a monopoly on slots.

The report calls for the state to pull the plug on its subsidy of the horse racing industry. It called for the Meadowlands track to be sold for $1 to the horse racing industry, which could operate it and pay paying the state the $2.5 million a year that the track currently pays. The report offers other options for Monmouth Park and the Atlantic City Race Course, but sees little future for Freehold Raceway.

Many of the governor’s recommendations will require approval from the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Senate President Steve Sweeney is among a powerful bloc of lawmakers representing South Jersey who have in the past supported measures that focus state resources in Atlantic City. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver is among a bloc of lawmakers from North Jersey who are likely to oppose proposals that reduce state financing for the Meadowlands.

Both Sweeney and Oliver expressed reservations about the recommendations.

Sweeney said the report fails to suggest ways to attract new gaming investors and restore the state’s reputation as a premier gaming destination. Oliver said it unfairly concentrates New Jersey’s scarce economic resources in Atlantic City.

Oliver said the Republican governor faces an uphill battle getting the proposals through the Legislature.

“Do I as speaker of the General Assembly post legislation that is not going to be equitable and fair to other regions of the state,” asked Oliver. “I would not.”

Two South Jersey lawmakers, Sen. Jim Whelan of Northfield and Assemblyman John Burzichelli of Thorofare, will lead public talks beginning next month to review the recommendations. The goal is to pass legislation that helps ensure the long-term viability of the state’s struggling gambling and entertainment industries by the end of the year.

Sweeney has not said what measures he would support.

Christie also endorsed providing $875 million in state financial help for the Xanadu project, saying the $2 billion project has come too far to abandon.