- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - As Atlantic City edges closer to going broke, state lawmakers continue to bicker over how to prevent that from happening.

A nasty, protracted struggle between Democratic leaders of the New Jersey Legislature is getting worse, with both sides digging in even deeper, and the likelihood of a deal to help the teetering seaside gambling resort shrinking by the minute.

Both men in effect calling each other liars didn’t help, either.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto will post his version of an Atlantic City aid bill for a vote in the Assembly on Thursday. But Senate president Steve Sweeney indicated Wednesday that even if the Assembly bill passes, he won’t put it up for a vote in the Senate.

Sweeney is insisting on his own Atlantic City bill, which gives the city 130 days to right its finances, compared with two years in the Assembly bill. Republican Gov. Chris Christie says he’ll only sign Sweeney’s bill, without changes.

The cash-starved city could go broke within weeks if an aid package is not enacted.

“He should put his bill up for a vote,” Sweeney said of Prieto. “Once that doesn’t pass, he should pass my bill. Otherwise, Atlantic City is going bankrupt.”

Prieto bluntly said the Senate bill will not be heard in the Assembly on Thursday, regardless of what happens to his own bill.

Sweeney also claimed he offered to extend his bill’s time frame for financial improvements from 130 days to nearly six months. Prieto says that never happened, and neither lawmaker would back down from their stances.

Prieto has refused to back the Senate bill, largely because it would allow the state to unilaterally break union contracts.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said his administration has cut costs and laid off 330 workers during his two years in office. But he said the city needs help - now.

“Even if I fired every single city employee, we would still be in tremendous debt because of legacy costs and casino tax appeals,” he said. “As any expert will tell you, we simply cannot cut our way out of this problem. We want a solution as much as anyone else, but we need a comprehensive solution to a problem that has been 30 years in the making.”

Prieto’s bill would create a commission to establish performance benchmarks that Atlantic City would have to meet over two years before a full state takeover could happen.

“But bankruptcy and financial ruin will be here in mere weeks,” said Democratic Assemblyman John Burzichelli. “Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian had to hold a press conference on Monday just to announce that the city could pay one of its bills. This is beyond nuts.”

On Monday, the city narrowly avoided becoming the first New Jersey city in 78 years to default on its debt by scraping up enough cash to make a $1.8 million bond payment.

Both bills include a provision to let the city’s eight casinos make payments in lieu of taxes in return for not appealing their tax assessments. The casinos would benefit from cost-certainty in knowing what their annual expenses will be, and the city would benefit by not having to deal with the tax appeals that casinos have used to devastating effect over the past 10 years to blow huge holes in the city budget as the value of their gambling halls declined.

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

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