GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Former Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of a bill establishing a Garden State Growth Zone around the Atlantic City International Airport loomed large over the annual State of the County luncheon Tuesday at the Carriage House.
Christie, who signed more than 100 bills on his final day in office Monday, pocket-vetoed the growth zone bill, claiming it was put together too “hastily” and local lawmakers were just “praying” it would be rubber-stamped on his way out of office.
“Let me address the elephant in the room,” Joe Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber, said in the opening remarks. “The fact is that this bill was worked on for months by many good people. ... It was not put together at the last moment.”
Levinson, who called Christie a “chump” for pocket-vetoing the bill, aired several grievances he had with the now-former governor during his State of the County speech.
Those grievances ranged from the veto, to Christie taking credit for the Stockton University Gateway Project even though the county, not the state, helped fund the project, to the ongoing dispute over the constitutionality of the payments in lieu of property taxes that Atlantic City casinos are locked into for another eight years.
“The governor went south on us,” Levinson said. “(Christie) said no after everyone in the business community said (the bill) was a great idea.. (Democratic Assemblyman) Vince Mazzeo and (Republican Sen.) Chris Brown were on the same track on this ... and he still said no.”
Levinson said he was particularly mad because Christie claimed the growth zone bill was pushed too quickly, but then went forward and signed a bill padding pensions for politicians in Camden County that was introduced in the final days of his administration.
Despite the bitter feelings over the pocket veto, local officials are still optimistic about the county’s overall economic future and the future of creating an “aviation industry” around the Atlantic City International Airport.
Lauren Moore, executive director of the Atlantic County Economic Alliance, said prospective tenants for the first building at the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park can still get some tax incentives under the Grow New Jersey program, and the alliance will help any company fill out forms or get permits needed to relocate to Atlantic County.
“We are there through the entire process,” Moore said, adding the bill would have greatly bolstered monetary incentives.
Levinson said he believes the county has finally turned the corner following the casino closings in Atlantic City. He pointed to the tech park, which is under construction, Stockton’s Atlantic City campus, which is nearing completion, reinvestment in Atlantic City and the county’s AA bond rating by Moody’s as signs the economy is trending upward.
As for the vetoed bill, both Brown and Mazzeo have committed to working with county officials to reintroduce the bill in the Legislature.
Brown said while the veto was a lost opportunity, it will not be the county’s last opportunity.
“Today I will renew my bipartisan effort and work with Gov. Murphy to provide our middle-class families with better job opportunities so they can afford to live, work, and retire in Atlantic County,” he said.
Kelly said the chamber will continue to work with lawmakers to get the bill passed, but cautioned time is of the essence because the Grow New Jersey program expires in July 2019.
“It’s imperative that we work quickly on this, and I think we can find ways to even improve (the bill) so that (Gov. Phil Murphy) will like it and sign it.”