- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - State Senate president Steve Sweeney refused to back off his demands on ownership requirements for two casinos proposed for northern New Jersey as serious differences remained Thursday between competing plans for a statewide referendum on the topic.

Both houses of the state Legislature voted to change their competing versions of a bill that would ask voters in November whether to approve two new casinos. But an agreement on the issue remained elusive. If a unified plan is not decided by Monday, the Legislature could simply choose one of the two versions and vote on it next week.

“I am not going to betray southern New Jersey and let Atlantic City fall into the ocean,” said Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat. “That’s not happening. I’m pretty strong where I’m at.”

Sweeney said his insistence that both new casinos be owned by companies that already have an Atlantic City casino is essential to more tightly linking the casino industry in the north with Atlantic City, which continues to struggle from ever-increasing competition that forced four of its 12 casinos to shut down last year.

“If you gamble in the Meadowlands, you earn comps that you can use in Atlantic City,” Sweeney said. “It creates that linkage.”

Sweeney’s bill would allocate no more than a third of all gambling tax revenue to help redevelop Atlantic City, though “not one penny” would go to Atlantic City’s municipal government. It says 50 percent of the first $150 million in tax revenue would go to Atlantic City, declining by 10 percent with each additional $150 million in tax revenue.

The Assembly changed its own bill, shifting an additional 2 percent to county and local governments for tax relief for seniors and the disabled.

Assemblyman Chris Brown unsuccessfully tried to delay his chamber from voting on the measure, saying “You’re killing Atlantic City.”

He said two to three more Atlantic City casinos may close if gambling is expanded elsewhere in the state, putting an additional 15,000 people out of work. Last year’s closures cost 8,000 jobs.

The referendum would be on whether to amend the state Constitution, which currently restricts casino gambling to Atlantic City. Though no locations are spelled out in either bill, the most commonly mentioned proposals for new casinos are at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, and in Jersey City.

The referendum bill needs to pass by a three-fifths majority in this session or by a simple majority in two legislative years.

The Assembly also approved a revised financial assistance package for Atlantic City, making changes demanded by Gov. Chris Christie when he vetoed it last month because he didn’t think it asked enough accountability and structural changes from the city, given the relief it would get.

The key measure is the so-called PILOT bill, for payment in lieu of taxes. It would let Atlantic City’s eight casinos make specified payments for 15 years instead of property taxes. The casinos would be able to predict their costs, and would be prohibited from appealing their taxes - something they have done to devastating effect on the city’s finances in recent years.

Christie’s main demand is that the $30 million a year that would have continued to fund the soon-to-be-defunct Atlantic City Alliance, which helped market the resort, be held by the state for two years until the city adopts a financial reform package acceptable to the state. The money would have gone straight to the city under the original version of the bill.

The state Senate has not yet scheduled a vote on the aid package.

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

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