TRENTON — The state Senate put off scheduled votes Monday on two landmark bills that would outline the future of Atlantic City, instead making amendments that included concessions on law enforcement in a tourism district and casino taxes.
Changes to the Democrat-authored bills would involve Atlantic City’s casino executives in launching a national marketing program, would give the Division of Gaming Enforcement power to write or delete casino regulations with immediate effect, and would let the Atlantic City Police Department retain control over public safety in high-traffic tourism areas.
The full Senate had been scheduled Monday to vote on the tourism district and regulatory reform bills. One bill, S-11, would create a district around Atlantic City’s major tourism areas to be managed by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. The other, S-12, would transfer casino regulatory powers from the Casino Control Commission to the Division of Gaming Enforcement as well as reduce regulators’ presence in the casinos.
The Senate had to postpone action Monday because bills cannot receive final votes immediately after being amended on the Senate floor. The amendments to both bills were approved unanimously.
Highlights of the amendments include:
- The Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit group headed by casino executives, would partner with the CRDA to undertake a five-year national marketing plan funded by the casinos. Having the casinos involved in a marketing campaign brings the tourism district concept closer to the kind of public-private partnership initially proposed by Gov. Chris Christie to revitalize Atlantic City.
- The DGE could repeal regulations or create new ones for a nine-month trial period, with the rule changes taking effect immediately. This would allow casinos to adapt quickly to the potential legalization of Internet gaming. The Senate approved a separate bill to allow online gaming Monday.
- A tax break for casinos on complimentary vouchers was eliminated, restoring nearly $8 million in Casino Revenue Fund taxes for senior citizen programs.
- An Atlantic City Tourism District Advisory Commission would review the CRDA’s annual budget, review the authority’s plans for the district and make recommendations.
- A city police precinct would be established within the tourism district and would be staffed and funded by the city. However, the Division of State Police would craft an operational plan for the area.
- The Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority and the Atlantic City Special Improvement District, which were expected to be abolished, would be maintained as divisions of the CRDA.
Revamping 30 years of tight regulation of the casino industry, the bills aim to attract investment capital through deregulation and by bolstering the city’s law enforcement and cleanup efforts. The tourism district bill would give the CRDA power over marketing, public safety, zoning, redevelopment and aesthetics in the tourism zone, the boundaries of which would be defined by the CRDA.
Under the proposed regulatory changes, the requirement that state inspectors be present in the casinos at all times would be eliminated.
Monday’s change to tourism district policing was a political loss for state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who initially proposed that a state-controlled public safety task force combining state and local officers would be responsible for law enforcement in the district.
“Honestly, I think this proposal needs work,” he said.
Van Drew said he supported having Atlantic City police officers staff the district. But putting them under the Division of Law and Public Safety instead would keep the funding from being tied solely to the city’s ailing budget, he said.
“We’ve just seen officers laid off,” he said. “How can we be certain there will be money for an increased presence?”
Democrats also backed off a proposed tax break for casinos on complimentary vouchers. Some Republicans, including Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, had called for that portion of the Democrats’ bill to be cut.
The assemblyman on Sunday called for nine broad amendments to the Democrats’ bill, which included the two concessions.
“It is good to see that other senators put a stop to the Whelan rush job and have the sense to take some time on evaluating and voting on legislation that is so critical to encourage capital investment, create jobs and provide opportunities for people in Atlantic City and our region,” Polistina said.
The assemblyman’s comments echoed a week’s worth of Republican criticism lobbed at Democrats who quickly pushed the two bills through Whelan’s state Senate Committee on State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation last week. Whelan insisted that Monday’s changes were not evidence of a political blunder, claiming he knew all along that amendments were on the horizon. Bills are usually amended in legislative committees before they go to the full Senate.
“We want to get this done,” Whelan said. “It was necessary for us to move this quickly.”
The amendments appear to be the result of ongoing negotiations between Whelan and other sponsors, the Governor’s Office and Republican legislators. Whelan said he anticipated more amendments to the bills before the final votes, which he predicted would come Dec. 20.
But core aspects of the Democrats’ bill are still facing Republican challenges. Most notably: the CRDA’s involvement. Polistina and his Atlantic County Republican colleague, Assemblyman John Amodeo, said they wanted an overhaul of the authority if it is going to assume control.
Everything from the agency’s leadership to its daily operations should be reformed, they said.
“Not even the name” should stay the same, Polistina said.
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