As this is an Atlantic City story, let’s start with a gambling analogy.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto was playing one last hand Thursday before heading to the high-roller table, hoping for the win he’d need to carry over enough chips to stand a chance of winning.

He didn’t get it. Unable to muster the votes for his alternative to the Atlantic City government takeover favored by Gov. Chris Christie, in part because lawmakers he was counting on for support stayed away from the Statehouse, Prieto postponed not just the vote but the whole session.

He’s going to try again Wednesday. But this time, he hopes, for a modified bill negotiated with Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who for now appears to be in no mood for talking.

“Today is a very, very frustrating day for me. But it’s a day of proof. I have been saying for six, eight weeks that the speaker didn’t have the votes for his bill. He never had the votes for his bill,” Sweeney said.

“This has been a waste of time, a waste of money and much too much drama over something that never had any real opportunity to pass,” Christie said.

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Bankruptcy now an option

Atlantic City may run out of money after making its next payroll and forwarding the tax revenue owed to the city’s school system. It’s unclear whether it will be able to make its next bond payment in early June, raising the prospect of the first municipal default in New Jersey since the Great Depression.

Christie, who in the past said he wouldn’t let Atlantic City declare bankruptcy, now says differently. He said some Republican lawmakers think that’s the best alternative and says “they may not be wrong.”

“If they come up with something, great,” Christie said of a legislative compromise. “If they don’t, then bankruptcy would be the only option. And while I would regret having to go down that road, it is a road that I will have no choice but to go down.”

Atlantic City Finances
Gov. Chris Christie holds a press conference on Atlantic City's finances while at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. on Thursday, May 5, 2016. (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

Prieto claimed he had 41 votes for the bill, including four Republicans, which would have been the bare minimum needed for it to pass. But three lawmakers expected to back the bill — James Kennedy, Eliana Pintor Marin and Grace Spencer — were not in attendance, citing either personal or family health issues.

And so Prieto heads to the high-roller table with a short stack of chips.

“The point of all this, and I’ve said it, this was to get us a seat at the table to negotiate,” Prieto said. “And once you pass that, that was my intention, getting a seat at the table. Because I have not gotten a seat at the table.”

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, before the Assembly session was postponed, said the Assembly needed its own bill to get that equal seat. He acknowledged that it would take passing the bill for the Assembly to have a stronger hand.

“Of course I would say that that’s absolutely correct,” Guardian said.

Assembly support for Senate bill?

Christie says any talk of a bill based on Prieto’s model, which gave Atlantic City a year or two to reach benchmarks before a takeover kicked in, should now be over. Sweeney urged a vote on his version of the plan, which has already passed the Senate.

“I hope the speaker now is willing to put my bills up because his has failed,” Sweeney said.

Prieto said he asked Democrats in their caucus meeting if anyone would vote for the version of the legislation passed by the Senate — without the 130-day delay Sweeney and others have since offered in a news release — and nobody was in favor.

“I asked everybody, ‘Can you vote for the Senate bill today?’ Not one hand went up. I want to stress that again: Not one hand went up, and everybody wanted a compromise,” Prieto said.

Sweeney says Prieto is unwilling to alter his bill, even though Christie opposes it. He said in addition to offering publicly to give Atlantic City 130 days to develop a cost-cutting plan to stave off a takeover, he offered privately to Prieto to tack 45 more days onto that.

“I offered him compromise. You know what the most insulting thing is? I met with him privately. I offered him an additional compromise. He accused me of lying to him,” said Sweeney, who conceded that “I didn’t offer him the sun and the moon” by adding 45 days.

Prieto says the cost-cutting goals Sweeney lays out, which would require the city to cut spending by almost half, are unrealistic.

“If any of you think that another 45 days is another proposal, that’s almost laughable,” Prieto said.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media New Jersey)
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media New Jersey)

The day took an odd turn when Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, told reporters Prieto and Sweeney and a delegation of other lawmakers had agreed to meet Friday morning to work toward an agreement.

“Our caucus wants that compromise to take place. We went out, we reached out to the Senate president. He’s willing to meet tomorrow. The speaker said he would be available tomorrow,” said Greenwald.

Lawmakers seemed pleased with the development. Then Sweeney sent out a news release blasting Prieto for saying there would be a meeting — even though it was Sweeney’s South Jersey colleague, Greenwald, who said it, not the speaker.

“I don’t know what Speaker Prieto is talking about,” Sweeney said in his news release. “There is no meeting planned for tomorrow to discuss any legislation related to Atlantic City.”

Meeting with reporters later, Sweeney was told what Greenwald said and was asked to explain.

“I don’t know who’s saying that to you, because I haven’t spoken to the speaker,” Sweeney said.

Prieto said the misdirection is part of why the negotiations have been difficult.

Nevertheless, and apparently without the Senate, Assembly members are due at the Statehouse for meetings on the Atlantic City issue Friday morning. Prieto said meetings would be held Monday and Tuesday, as well, and include Republicans. A vote on a bill is scheduled for Wednesday.

“The caucus wants a bill that the governor will sign, and we need to work together with the Senate,” Prieto said.

“Hopefully it will be a negotiated bill with the Senate. That’s what I want,” Prieto said.

Greenwald said he’s hopeful for a compromise.

“To me, it’s not about the Assembly bill or the Senate bill. It’s about a compromise that really works about giving Atlantic City the tools to solve their own problem and then if they can’t, the state steps in,” Greenwald said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for NJ 101.5 and the author of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook.

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