- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - An altered financial assistance plan for Atlantic City and its struggling casino industry is headed for a vote in the state Assembly, which is likely to adopt changes requested by Gov. Chris Christie.

Assembly speaker Vincent Prieto announced Wednesday the recommendations would get a vote Thursday.

Christie conditionally vetoed the measures in November. The key bill would have allowed eight casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes for 15 years, letting them anticipate how much they owe each year instead of facing possible huge increases.

Instead, Christie called for $30 million in aid eventually bound for Atlantic City to first go to the state in each of tax years 2015 and 2016. The state would hold onto it until after Atlantic City passes a fiscal recovery plan the state deems acceptable.

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, an Atlantic City-area Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said Christie’s changes leave the heart of the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan intact.

“With our concurrence to his minor changes, we hope he will indeed sign it and the other bills into law soon to stabilize property taxes for thousands of Atlantic County’s hard-working middle-class families and seniors,” Mazzeo said.

The governor, a Republican presidential candidate, also vetoed a bill that would divert alternate investment taxes the casinos now pay and direct that money toward helping reduce Atlantic City’s debt. He also vetoed a bill eliminating the Atlantic City Alliance, which promotes the resort to other parts of the country, and redirected its $30 million annual budget to help the city.

In his veto message, Christie said the original bills don’t require enough sacrifice and responsibility from Atlantic City for the amount of help it would get in return.

“Regrettably, many of the city’s key stakeholders have failed to embrace the concepts of fiscal restraint and strong leadership, and instead have settled on a course toward self-preservation and vacillation,” he wrote. “Equally regrettable are the provisions of this package of bills that simply shift resources to the city without requiring accountability on the part of those who receive the funds or those who benefit from the unique tax payment arrangements set forth in the legislation.”

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian has said the city has already cut $25 million from its budget this year and got a grant to pay $21.5 million toward the cost of firefighter salaries the city otherwise would have had to pay.

A spokesman for Senate President Steve Sweeney said a decision has not yet been made on whether that house plans to consider the legislation soon.

The package grew out of a devastating 2014 in Atlantic City in which four of the city’s 12 casinos went out of business. Christie convened a series of summits on the city’s future, and some of the measures included in the package arose, in part, from those talks.

The bill that would have allowed casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes was seen as a way to help stabilize the casinos’ finances and prohibit them from filing tax appeals each year challenging their assessments. Such moves were almost always won by the casinos as the city’s gambling market declined and they were able to prove to a tax court that their property was worth less than just a few years earlier. Those appeals have blown huge holes in the city’s budget in recent years.

Christie signed a bill approving new state school aid for Atlantic City, whose school funding plummeted as the value of its casinos declined. He also cast an outright veto of a bill that would have mandated unspecified levels of health and pension benefits for casino workers.

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Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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