Donald Trump
March 2008 file photo of Donald Trump at a topping-off ceremony for the new Trump Taj Mahal tower in Atlantic City. Ben Fogletto

Now that New Jersey's Gov. Chris Christie is with Donald Trump a lot, he should ask what Trump thinks of the plan by he and Senate President Stephen Sweeney to take over local government in Atlantic City.

During the summer of 1989, Democratic state Sen. Richard Codey and Republican Assemblyman Bill Schuber proposed a similar plan. They claimed that the arrest of the city's mayor and three council members on corruption charges proved that locals were not qualified to run a town with casinos.

They held a joint public hearing in Trenton that September. As an Atlantic City councilman, I went to that hearing with other city officials to defend ourselves.

To our surprise, someone we did not expect to be there presented our case much better than we did. That person was a young casino owner named Donald Trump.

Trump began his remarks by pointing at the legislators on the podium and saying, "You want to know who made a mess out of Atlantic City? You did!"

Then Trump explained. "To get my casino license, I spent a fortune to have your people thoroughly investigate my finances. You spent months checking out my character. You found that my finances were perfect. You found that my character was perfect. So what did you do? You made a law that said I'm not qualified to hold any public office in the state! I'm not even allowed to talk about politics in this state."

Trump was talking about New Jersey's casino law that barred most casino employees from holding public office, supporting candidates, or even speaking out on public issues. A few years earlier, Trump was investigated when some of his vendors supported an opponent of local state Sen. Bill Gormley in a primary election.

Trump complained that the state built Atlantic City's $268 million Convention Center far from the Boardwalk. "First you stuck the new train station in the middle of nowhere. Then you built the Convention Center next to the train station."

But that was just part of the problem. By politically castrating the city's leading industry and biggest taxpayers, state government gave Atlantic City taxation without representation and representation without taxation. The people who paid 80 percent of local government and public school taxes were stripped of any power to control them. At the same time, the state's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority forced casinos to "invest" in low-income housing so thousands of Atlantic City voters paid almost no property taxes.

As a result, Atlantic City's local government budget of $37 million per year in 1978 exploded to $262 million today. Although its population declined, and casinos do their own security and fire protection, Atlantic City's local government budget increased by $225 million - roughly $6 million (16 percent) per year.

Why blame Atlantic City voters for supporting big tax hikes they didn't have to pay for?

To fix the problem, we must let Atlantic City's biggest taxpayers again have a voice in both state and local politics. Second, Atlantic City's local government and public schools must immediately cut spending and taxes to a level that business and homeowners can afford.

That means massive layoffs and salary cuts. It also means wiping out the $400 million debt that delayed Atlantic City's day of reckoning while Christie was running for president.

State law and contracts do not permit that. But federal bankruptcy does. That is why it is the only option to save Atlantic City. It is the only legal way to immediately cut unsustainable government spending, debt and taxes.

Once Atlantic City taxes are again affordable, state government should simplify and reform the casino, zoning and permit laws. This would let dozens of local investors and business owners get into the casino business - not just a handful of big corporations.

Seth Grossman, of Somers Point, is executive director of and a former Atlantic County freeholder and Atlantic City Council member.

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