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Murphy praises Atlantic City in State of the State speech

TRENTON — Atlantic City got a rare positive mention from the governor during his State of the State address Tuesday, prompting bipartisan applause from the entire Legislature and a standing ovation for the executive overseeing New Jersey’s efforts.

Gov. Phil Murphy singled out Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and the state Department of Community Affairs for their work in Atlantic City during his annual address in the Assembly chambers.

Murphy’s praise came on the heels of the second credit upgrade for the city in the past three months and on the same day the casino industry’s year-end revenue results showed a fourth consecutive year of increases.

McClellan and Simonsen sworn in as state assemblymen

TRENTON — Both of the 1st Legislative District’s new Republican representatives were humbled by the magnitude of their newfound responsibility as they were sworn in Tuesday as members of New Jersey’s 219th General Assembly.

The governor said the rating upgrades were “proof that our collaborative and cooperative approach to turning Atlantic City around is the right path to take.”

“We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Lt. Gov. Oliver, and her team at the Department of Community Affairs, for this progress,” Murphy said.

While the accomplishments of the Murphy administration in Atlantic City are not as tangible as the settling of multimillion-dollar casino tax appeals or the significant reduction in city employees under Gov. Chris Christie, the state has assisted in securing funding for the construction of a supermarket and an AtlantiCare health park, expanded internship opportunities for youth and programs for seniors, and crafted two municipal budgets without a tax increase. The state’s oversight was credited as a primary factor in the most recent bond rating upgrade from Moody’s Investment Services this month.

“For the governor to recognize the tremendous strides that we’ve made here in the City of Atlantic City and for us to be a part of the State of the State address speaks volumes,” said Mayor Marty Small Sr., who watched Murphy give his speech in Trenton.

Deputy DCA Commissioner Rob Long said the agency is following the lead of Murphy and Oliver, who oversees the department.

“It’s obviously paid some good dividends so far,” Long said after the governor’s speech. “There’s still plenty of work to do, and we’re ready to keep doing it.”

In the coming year, the city and state must grapple with the impact of a citywide property revaluation that is likely to raise rates for some taxpayers. Additionally, since the state assumed full control of Atlantic City, the overall debt has increased nearly 3½ times what it was when Trenton took over, leaving the city with mounting annual debt service payments.

Further adding to the issues that must be addressed, public safety workers in the city say they still feel unsupported and are unclear about basic operating procedures in the absence of civil service.

Small said he and the city’s leadership will continue to work with the state to find workable solutions to those problems.

Elsewhere in his State of the State speech, Murphy defended his progressive policies and promised again to raise taxes on the rich.

He also called on lawmakers to respond to citizens’ “rightful cynicism” about government with greater transparency.

“Even as the new year unfolds, our mission does not change,” Murphy said.

He also promised long-term plans for transit, as well as new offices for health care transparency and a task force to study wealth disparity. He said he is launching an initiative called Jobs NJ aimed at helping workers and employers match up.

Murphy campaigned on boosting funding at NJ Transit and repairing its badly tarnished image and on Tuesday doubled down on a promise to fix the agency.

The current year’s budget increased the state’s subsidy to the agency by 50% over the previous year’s.

The biggest change in store appears to be a promise to conduct a 10-year strategic plan at the agency as well as a five-year capital plan.

Murphy expressed disbelief at what he said was a lack of longterm planning at the agency, which runs trains and buses statewide.

“These aren’t just ‘new’ plans — it’s actually the first time these have ever been done,” he said.

Republicans, in the minority in state government, panned the speech. GOP state Chairman Doug Steinhardt said Democrats only argue over how much to raise taxes.

“New Jersey is in the throes of an affordability crisis, and Trenton Democrats are tone deaf to its residents’ needs,” he said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rebounding Atlantic City casinos see $3.3B revenue in 2019

ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic City’s casinos won almost $3.3 billion from gamblers in 2019, helped by surging sports and internet bets as the seaside resort continued to rebound from a mid-decade meltdown that saw five casinos close.

Figures released Tuesday by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement show the nine casinos collectively won $3.29 billion in 2019, an increase of over 15% from 2018.

When an additional $300 million in sports betting revenue is added to the equation, the casinos and two racetracks that offer sports betting won $3.46 billion last year, a figure that does not include money from horse racing bets.

It marked the first year since 2012 that Atlantic City’s casinos had won more than $3 billion from gamblers.

That was right before a brutal stretch from 2014 to 2016 that saw five of the then-12 casinos shut down, and more than 11,000 jobs lost.

The reopening in 2018 of the former Trump Taj Mahal as Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and the former Revel as Ocean Casino Resort has brought added revenue and jobs to the market.

But those same two new casinos also are diluting the profitability of the seven casinos that were in business before they reopened. For the first three quarters of 2019, the nine casinos reported a cumulative gross operating profit of $484 million, down 4.5% from the same period in 2018.

“The revenue increase is a positive,” said David Schwartz, a gambling historian with the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Right now the industry should be in ‘grow-the-market’ mode rather than seeking to consolidate profits, so a decrease in profits isn’t necessarily the worst news we could get. Overall, what Atlantic City needs right now is to improve its image and marketing and become a destination in a crowded Northeast casino market.”

Rummy Pandit, a gambling analyst with Stockton University, said Atlantic City has successfully diversified its gambling offerings, particularly through sports betting and internet gambling. Those two products, developed since November 2013, now account for more than 18% of Atlantic City’s winnings, he said.

The news was not all positive. Five of the nine casinos won less money in 2019 than they did in 2018. Tropicana was down 8.2% to $349.5 million; Harrah’s was down 6.1% to $312.6 million; Bally’s was down 5.4% to $181.5 million; Caesars was down 3.7% to $270.9 million; and Resorts was down 3.2% to $178.4 million.

The Golden Nugget was up 15.4% to $378.4 million. It finished the year as the No. 2 casino in Atlantic City in terms of revenue. The perennial leader, Borgata, was up 3.5% to $797.8 million.

There was no year-to-year comparison for the newest casinos, which had not been open for a full year in 2018. For 2019, Hard Rock won $350 million, and Ocean won $238 million.

New Jersey had a banner year at sports betting, with nearly $4.6 billion wagered on pro and college games.

The state won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 2018, clearing the way for all 50 states to offer legal sports betting should they so choose. Since the first bets were taken in New Jersey in June 2018, more than $5.8 billion has been wagered on sports, putting the state right behind Nevada in the race to lead the burgeoning market.

The Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, just outside New York City, was the runaway leader in sports betting revenue with just under $150 million. It is partnered with the FanDuel sportsbook. The other racetrack to offer sports betting, Monmouth Park in Oceanport, won nearly $26 million in sports bets. Resorts Digital, which is affiliated with the DraftKings online sports book, won nearly $80 million on sports.

Internet gambling also continued to be a bright spot in 2019, with $482 million won online from gamblers, an increase of more than 61% over 2018. In the month of December, nearly $558 million was wagered on sports in New Jersey, the second-best month ever, trailing only November’s total of nearly $563 million.

What were the biggest jackpots scored at Atlantic City casinos in December?

FAA opens $5 million facility to find safer firefighting compounds

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The Federal Aviation Administration has opened a new $5 million indoor facility for testing more environmentally friendly firefighting compounds at its William J. Hughes Technical Center, the agency announced Tuesday.

Current firefighting foams — which were tested at the FAA here decades ago, polluting groundwater — are highly effective against jet fuel fires. But they contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of potentially hazardous fluorine chemicals also used to make Teflon, Scotchguard and other products.

As a result, parts of the Hughes center, Atlantic City International Airport and the New Jersey Air National Guard properties are now a Superfund site, with a years-long cleanup still in process.

AC utility authority joins 100 towns in suit over tainted water supply

The Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority has joined 100 other towns across the U.S. in suing chemical company DuPont, manufacturing firm 3M and others they allege are responsible for clean-ups associated with groundwater contamination near airports and industrial sites, including one in Egg Harbor Township.

The 2,500-square-foot facility opened last month and “will support research on fluorine-free firefighting foams,” according to the FAA announcement.

The fire-test facility is fully enclosed and will eliminate weather-related variables in testing, according to the FAA, and will allow for more frequent testing.

New Jersey orders 5 companies to clean up chemicals

TRENTON — New Jersey is ordering five companies that manufacture chemicals used to stain-proof clothing and produce nonstick cookware to spend what could be hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up contamination from the substances.

“With the commissioning of this new lab, our vision remains firmly fixed on the future and how we can best prepare to meet the challenges ahead,” said Hughes center Director Shelley Yak. “The Technical Center’s researchers and facilities continue to address aviation-based issues of greater passenger safety and a cleaner environment while maintaining our global standard of excellence.”

Construction of the new facility started in November 2018 and FAA researchers began testing there this month, FAA said.

Also in 2018, New Jersey became the first state to adopt a safe drinking water standard for one of the most toxic perfluorinated compounds, called perfluorononanoic acid, or PFNA.

In 2019, the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority joined 100 other towns across the U.S. in suing chemical company DuPont, manufacturing firm 3M and others they allege manufactured and sold the firefighting foams that polluted one of the ACMUA’s wells near the Hughes center as well as water systems around the nation.

ACMUA Executive Director Bruce Ward said Tuesday it will cost the utility at least $40 million to meet the new standard.

“Our annual budget is $17.7 million. Our task to upgrade treatment to meet the new regulations will be dependent upon a mix of bond and proceeds from the lawsuit,” Ward said. “Dupont’s slogan ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’ will be the most enduring falsehood for generations.”

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the first federal guidance for lessening PFAS in groundwater, but they were guidelines, not requirements.

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 directed the agency to stop requiring the use of fluorinated chemicals in aircraft firefighting foams within three years.

But fluorine-free foams on the market today do not work as well as fluorinated foams, creating the need for development of new compounds.

“The FAA is committed to ensuring safety at our nation’s airports, while also balancing environmental concerns,” said FAA Associate Administrator Kirk Shaffer. “Our goal is to find an alternative firefighting foam that is environmentally friendly, while providing the same level of safety.”

Drinking water providers in New Jersey who use groundwater sources now have to monitor for PFNA and treat to remove it to concentrations below 13 parts per trillion.

PFNA is extremely persistent in the environment, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Exposure to PFNA over many years can cause problems with the liver, kidney and immune system. It can cause reproductive problems in men, and in women can cause developmental delays in a fetus or infant, the DEP has said.

Last year, the FAA awarded a $36 million, nine-year contract to a Massachusetts firm to continue the Superfund cleanup at the Hughes center.

The property was designated a National Priority Listed hazardous waste site in 1990, in the early years of the Superfund program, FAA spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt has said.

More than 30 areas of concern have been identified at the 5,000-acre site, according to the firm that won the contract, TRC of Lowell, Massachusetts.

GALLERY: Take a look at Atlantic City Airshow Preparation

McClellan and Simonsen sworn in as state assemblymen

TRENTON — Both of the 1st Legislative District’s new Republican representatives were humbled by the magnitude of their newfound responsibility as they were sworn in Tuesday as members of New Jersey’s 219th General Assembly.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, following the bi-annual ceremony inside the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton. “I can’t explain the outpouring of love once elected, even prior to being elected, that everybody in the community has given me, (from) my family, my friends, and also the constituents. I’m still on cloud nine.”

McClellan, of Ocean City, and Erik Simonsen, of Lower Township, defeated incumbent Democrats Bruce Land and Matthew Milam. The pair ran alongside state Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who defeated incumbent Democrat Bob Andrzejczak in last year’s only state Senate race. Testa was sworn in Dec. 5.

The 1st District was the only one to switch from Democratic to Republican representation during the last election.

Simonsen, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said the experience of becoming a member of the state Legislature was “exciting,” but “I’m just kind of itching to get to work.”

Taxes, education and seniors are priorities for the two freshman state lawmakers, who were among seven first-time members taking the oath of office Tuesday afternoon.

“Taxes are definitely an issue,” McClellan said. “We have a lot of people leaving (our area), and we want to make sure they stay.”

Simonsen, who will sit on both the Assembly’s education and state and local government committees, said he wants to focus on finding bipartisan solutions to some of New Jersey’s biggest problems.

“When I took over as mayor (of Lower Township in 2016), there was a lot of divisiveness in my town,” he said. “Just being able to work with different people … and trying to come to the best conclusion for the people (taught me a lot).”