Ranked among the top 10 most powerful people in the county by The Hudson Reporter over the last few years, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto of Secaucus has become the most visible opponent to Gov. Christopher Christie in regards to Atlantic City rescue efforts.
Prieto said last week that this is not the first time that he has stood up to Christie. The Atlantic City conflict is simply their most high profile confrontation.
As speaker of the state Assembly, Prieto is arguably the second or third most powerful political figure in the state.
“The governor has accused me of doing the bidding of Mayor [Steven] Fulop,” Prieto said. “While I listen – as [Hudson County] Democratic chairman and assemblyman – to the concerns of all 12 mayors in Hudson County, I am not controlled by Mayor Fulop.”
Prieto has been a member of the state Assembly since December 2004, and has served as speaker since January, 2014. He represents the 32nd District that includes Secaucus, North Bergen, and other parts of Hudson County. He is also chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.
“If we just give back what the state takes out of the city, the city couldn’t need aid.” – Vincent Prieto
A resident of Secaucus, he served as construction code official there for a time before being named as chair of the buildings department.
“I take a very blue collar approach to things,” Prieto said.
Atlantic City is at risk
Christie and Sweeney have blasted Prieto as an obstructionist, claiming that his stance on unions threatens to lead to Atlantic City’s demise. Although some of its financial deadlines have been extended, most expect the city to collapse financially if the state does not intervene.
Casino revenues have collapsed, partly as a result of competition closer to New York and other major cities. Revenue from casino gambling has been used to fund a number of programs throughout the state including many that serve disabled and senior citizens. Hudson County government recently had to fund a senior transportation fund previously paid for by casino revenues.
This war of words waged against Prieto is largely due to the fact that Prieto has refused to sign off on an Atlantic City financial rescue that completely guts collective bargaining and other safeguards.
Prieto said he hadn’t intended to become a leading spokesperson against legislation proposed by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and backed by Christie. But the issue, he said, is too important for him to simply go along with.
In mid-April, Prieto proposed alternative legislation for helping Atlantic City, something he said he believes would accomplish much of what the Sweeney bill would but without violating the basic principles of oversight.
Prieto said the Sweeney takeover bill goes too far and threatens existing collective bargaining contracts. His measure would include the creation of a five-member “Atlantic City Planning Committee” featuring the city’s mayor and council president that would, among other things, be able to renegotiate the terms of most public contracts without complete state oversight.
“The governor will still have control of the committee since he will be able to select three of the five members,” Prieto said.
Prieto said he objected to the fact that one person appointed by the governor would have power to buy and sell land, suspend collective bargaining agreements, hire and fire, and other things without oversight by anyone except the chair of the state’s Local Finance Board and perhaps Gov. Christie.
Under the Sweeney bill, the director of the Local Finance Board or his designee will oversee Atlantic City and have power to hire and fire, end or award contracts, sell property, and do away with ordinances or labor contracts.
“This would disfranchise the people of Atlantic City,” Prieto said. “Their public officials would no longer represent them. This appointee could strip the city, sell off its assets without oversight. This cannot be one-person totalitarian government. Those assets are owned by the residents.”
Prieto committee would have similar powers but with more oversight
While the committee he proposed would have similar powers to cut spending, and help restore Atlantic City finances, it would be limited to a year, and there would be representatives from other parts of the community, not just from the governor.
“My bill would set up a committee. The governor would still appoint three of the five seats but a special master would be appointed by the chief justice,” Prieto said.
Christie, however, has said he would veto any bill other than the one that Sweeney had proposed, and has accused Prieto of catering to unions rather than the overall public interest.
Prieto said he believes in the collective bargaining process. But his real objection is leaving the power to do so much in one person’s hands without appropriate oversight by the community it most affects.
Prieto said Sweeney’s bill would also exempt the state from unfair labor practices law. He said allowing the state to have this power over Atlantic City leaves open every other municipality in the state to similar takeover and suspension of labor agreements everywhere.
“Is Atlantic City government bloated?” Prieto said. “Yes, but that can be remedied without giving up basic rights.”
Prieto said the city has already begun to downsize the number of its employees, and the state could do more by allowing the elimination of managerial jobs, rather than insisting on doing away with contracts for the rank and file employees.
The state can help Atlantic City finances in a number of ways, giving the city emergency loans, allowing the state’s Local Finance Board to adopt a plan for liquidation of the city’s debt, or require all future collective bargaining agreements be subject to review and approval by the Local Finance Board.
But perhaps a quicker remedy is to cease allowing the state to take money out of Atlantic City and allow revenues generated by such things as the hotel tax to be used in Atlantic City. Currently the state takes all of the hotel taxes from Atlantic City for the state general fund.
The state also refuses to return some of the taxes generated by the casinos themselves.
Prieto’s version would set up a benchmark system that would eventually allow the committee to make the types of changes allowed in the Senate version if the city’s finances don’t improve. Like legislation passed by the Senate, Prieto’s measure would allow the city’s casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes.
Prieto has tangled with the governor before
Prieto said he came into the Assembly speakership with a strong work ethic.
“I insist on educating myself on every issue,” he said. “I don’t depend on what people tell me. I want to see for myself. Don’t tell me the water is cold, I want to feel it for myself.”
He hadn’t intended to take on the lead role against Christie. But he said challenging some of Christie’s proposals started early. They simply didn’t get the fanfare Atlantic City issue has.
“I have an elephant’s memory,” he said. “I remember conversations other people don’t remember.”
One of the early battles with Christie involved police and fire arbitration, the rules of which were about to expire. Police and fire fighters can’t strike. So the state set up arbitration.
“The governor wanted something I disagreed with,” Prieto said.
Prieto stood his ground and eventually got a negotiation that would not have happened.
He and Christie had a similar confrontation on bail reform.
“But I haven’t been on the rooftops shouting about it,” he said.
With the Atlantic City issue, Christie and Sweeney have had meetings with the mayor of Atlantic City, meetings to which Prieto has not been invited.
“They are trying to ram this takeover down the city’s throat,” Prieto said. “I think collective bargaining needs to be protected. This goes to my core beliefs and I’m not about to compromise civil liberties.”
Prieto said he doesn’t see the Atlantic City financial situation in the same way the others do.
“I don’t see the glass as half empty or half full,” he said. “I think we can quench the thirst with half a glass.”
By this, he means that allowing Atlantic City to use some of its own resources that are currently being diverted to the state, the state may be able to resolve some of the fiscal issues.
Although Atlantic City has some of the poorest residents in the state, it receives only $17 million in state aid for education. This is because when the casinos were blooming the city was considered wealthy. This changed when the casino income crashed.
Prieto said population numbers for the city have been distorted, too.
“The governor says Atlantic City has a population of 39,000 people. We think it is about 80,000 to 90,000 and has high as 200,000 with visitors from out of the city,” Prieto said. “We looked at the emergency room admissions which were 21,000 last year. Using the governor’s population figures, this means that two out of three residents of Atlantic City went to the hospital last year.”
The state takes all of Atlantic City’s parking revenues annually, and unlike other cities such as Secaucus and Jersey City, none of the hotel tax in Atlantic City remains in Atlantic City.
“If we just give back what the state takes out of the city, the city couldn’t need aid,” Prieto said. “But I’m beating my head against a wall.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.