An Atlantic City bankruptcy: promising for taxpayers, bad for politicians!

By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog

Doomsday predictions were leveled, Save Jerseyans, but over one year removed from the Detroit, Michigan bankruptcy – the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history – the Motor City is shaping up and making substantive progress. It can pay its bill and streets are being repairs. Sad as it is to stay, that’s huge.

The Revel casino, slated to close at the end of the 2014 summer season.
The Revel casino, slated to close at the end of the 2014 summer season.

You’re only surprised if you don’t trust the framework established by our Framing Fathers. Specifically, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution which authorizes Congress to enact “uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States.”

And, of course, if you’re a politician fighting over Atlantic City like lions or hyenas battle over the scraps of a rotting carcass.

The analogy is brutal but not entirely inappropriate (like most things you read here). In fact, it works quite well. In 2015, Atlantic City’s budget deficit topped $120 million, a sum greater than one third of the city’s total annual revenues. The causation is clear. The city has lost one third of its population over the past fifty-ish years; 70% of the resort’s property tax revenue evaporated just the last six years as major casinos shuttered.

Trenton’s answer to this decades-old disaster in the making?

Ho-hum! Status quo.

Last year, Chris Christie‘s administration appointed an emergency manager and offered $40 million in aid to city hall and exempt them from a pension payment, something that never helps anyone as we’ve learned at the state-level. Atlantic City coughed up only $11.6 million — or 3% of its bloated budget — in cuts since then. Shocker: it didn’t work! Now a takeover vote looms, one which could come as early as today (Thursday 5/5).

GOP Mayor Don Guardian is new to the job in 2014 and certainly didn’t cause this mess. The city is down 330 since he took office and city council is still Democrat-controlled, meaning some spending cuts will never come easily.

And he’s been the victim of Trenton’s typical games.

“Last year, the state told us to put $33.5 million into our budget, assuring us that the PILOT bill would be signed,” Guardian explained this week in a statement. “The PILOT was vetoed twice. We were left with a gaping hole in our budget. Now time is running out.”

The games continue. Governor Christie is focusing on whatever it is he’s angling to do on the national stage; he’s touting the takeover as a “partnership.” Senate President Steve Sweeney and his boss George Norcross, his Democrat fair-weather allies, are taking flack from North Jersey’s Steven Fulop because Sweeney and Fulop are arch-rivals for the 2017 gubernatorial nomination. Vincent Prieto, the Assembly Speaker, is playing to the unions and his Hudson County ally, Fulop, by putting up an equally goofy alternative bill.

Would you want to “partner” with ANY of these character, folks?

Governor Chris Christie joins Mayor Dana Redd, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Donald Norcross, Superintendent of Schools Paymon Rouhanifard, KIPP Executive Director Drew Martin and Chairman George Norcross for the KIPP: Cooper Norcross Academy at Lanning Square ground breaking in Camden, N.J. on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)
Governor Chris Christie joins Mayor Dana Redd, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Donald Norcross, Superintendent of Schools Paymon Rouhanifard, KIPP Executive Director Drew Martin and Chairman George Norcross for the KIPP: Cooper Norcross Academy at Lanning Square ground breaking in Camden, N.J. on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen)

The want control, and patronage, and the power that comes with it, which is why the city’s revenue flowed out of its boundaries for many years via the CRDA and heavy taxation and into projects elsewhere rather than being dedicated, as they should’ve been, to improving the city’s own infrastructure and ability to evolve into something appropriate for its geographical largess.

They even want the water. The water! Maybe Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper was on to something?

No thanks on the partnership. These so-called partnerships always end badly for predictable reasons and one partner – the taxpayers – always gets the shaft. Is Camden any better for the McGreevey era state takeover? For a more recent example, visit Flint, Michigan and have a drink of water… if you dare. That collaboration between state and local leaders looks to have caused actual physical harm. The contrast with the Detroit experience is compelling to say the least.

The ONLY workable path forward, if we’re interested in a long-term solution, is to replace the politicians and their rubes with a man or woman in a black robe. That person is armed with constitutionally-established powers to make big things happen quickly but, significantly, in such a way as to maintain a greater level of local control. Cuts will happen, tens of millions of dollars in debt will be discharged or scheduled, and you may even see some pension burden relief.

It’s the city’s only real hope to break the cycle of Trenton hand-outs, and subsequent broken promises, perpetuating an endless debt spiral. Think about it: these are, after all, the same rubes who broke the pension system!

Taxpayers outside the city might even, with time, get a break from the property tax-financed state aid that pours into A.C.’s school district, aid that was recently litigated over (driving up the price tag yet again).

Trust the Constitution over a political process where, as noted history professor and Camden historian Howard Gillette eloquently described it, “raw power masquerades as benevolence.”

Trust the legal system over New Jersey political power brokers’ version of ‘Game of Thrones.’

Trust Chapter 9 over whatever transparently self-serving deals come out of Trenton in the coming days.

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3 thoughts on “An Atlantic City bankruptcy: promising for taxpayers, bad for politicians!

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  2. “Trust the legal system over New Jersey political power brokers’ version of ‘Game of Thrones.’”

    Um…yeah, R00ney. The very same system that declared – the face of the letter and spirit of NJ statutes – that Democrat Frank Lautenberg was eligible run in place of disgraced Democrat Robert G. Torricelli, who resigned from the campaign not 51 but 35 days before the general election.

    Rationalizing its power grab, the state Court invoked “the public interest,” “the general intent of the election laws,” and “the two-party system” – terms that appear nowhere in the relevant statute. In short, by assuming legislative functions, the New Jersey court made a mockery of the doctrine of separation of powers – a centerpiece of federal and state constitutions and a bulwark against governments that might otherwise abuse their citizens.

    Yeah…we can trust the legal system here in Jersey. But I’m not surprised by your words…you are, after all, a lawyer – and what better state in which to chase ambulances than New Jersey?

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