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Will Atlantic City casinos really close without tax breaks?

December 13, 2021 GMT
A gambler plays a slot machine in Bally's casino in Atlantic City, N.J. on June 23, 2021. On Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, the American Gaming Association released statistics showing America's casinos have won more this year than ever before at $44.15 billion, and with more than a month still remaining in the year. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
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A gambler plays a slot machine in Bally's casino in Atlantic City, N.J. on June 23, 2021. On Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, the American Gaming Association released statistics showing America's casinos have won more this year than ever before at $44.15 billion, and with more than a month still remaining in the year. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
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A gambler plays a slot machine in Bally's casino in Atlantic City, N.J. on June 23, 2021. On Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, the American Gaming Association released statistics showing America's casinos have won more this year than ever before at $44.15 billion, and with more than a month still remaining in the year. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The push to enact tax breaks for Atlantic City’s casinos — and avoid a threatened closure of as many as four of them — got a key supporter Monday as the head of the main casino workers’ union endorsed a bill being considered by state lawmakers.

Bob McDevitt, the influential president of Local 54 of the Unite Here union, said the bill is necessary to prevent thousands of casino workers from losing their jobs.

It moved closer to approval Monday after being advanced by a state Assembly committee. It still needs approval by the full Senate and Assembly before going to Gov. Phil Murphy.

“Our members and their families have suffered terribly during the pandemic and resulting meltdown in the economy,” McDevitt said. “As we exit the pandemic and begin the recovery process, it is essential that Atlantic City’s hotel and gaming properties remain stable.

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“The choices in my mind are clear: Do nothing and risk the loss of thousands of jobs, or immediately pass this legislation and provide a foundation for stability and growth in the future,” he said.

Last week, outgoing state Senate President Steve Sweeney said casinos have told him that four of the nine gambling houses are in danger of going out of business if the tax relief bill does not pass.

The bill provides for the casinos to make payments in lieu of property taxes to Atlantic City, Atlantic County and the city’s school system.

Among other benefits, it would remove internet gambling and sports betting money — Atlantic City’s two fastest-growing revenue streams — from calculations of how much the casinos have to pay. (Normal state taxes on those items would remain in place.)

Sweeney offered little proof of his assertion last week, saying he had been told by several casino properties and their trade association that multiple casinos could close without the relief contained in the bill. He did not identify specific casinos he believes to be at risk.

Atlantic City’s casino profits and revenue are up significantly this year, rebounding strongly from declines caused last year by the pandemic.

And they are doing better than they did over the comparable period of 2019 before the pandemic hit. But employment is down from peak levels as many casinos are running leaner this year; McDevitt said about 20% fewer workers are on the job now compared to 2019.

Last week, the nation’s commercial casinos set a record for their highest-winning year ever.

Sue Altman, executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said she does not believe that casinos will actually close without the financial breaks.

“New Jersey’s tendency to give the casino industry whatever it wants is problematic,” she said during the hearing. “We need to stop doing that. We are sick and tired of watching big, powerful corporations like casinos pay less than their fair share in taxes.”

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The first version of the bill was passed five years ago when Atlantic City was reeling from the closure of five of its 12 casinos.

Easily able back then to show that their businesses were worth less in a declining market, the casinos successfully appealed their property tax assessments year after year, helping to blow huge holes in Atlantic City’s budget.

In return for agreeing not to appeal their taxes, the casinos got some financial relief and the certainty of knowing what their property tax obligation would be for years.

So are any casinos really in danger of closing if the bill doesn’t pass?

“It is difficult to assess the statement that four casinos would close because there is limited public information available about the impact on individual casino properties,” said Jane Bokunewicz, director of the Lloyd Levenson Institute at Stockton University, which studies the Atlantic City casino industry.

She noted that between December 2020 and July 2021, internet and sports betting accounted for 46% of total casino revenue, adding it would make a big impact on the casinos finances to exclude those totals from calculations on how much they have to pay.

“I really do believe there will be closures,” McDevitt said. “Spreading revenue around is like spreading peanut butter onto bread. You’re spreading the peanut butter thinner and thinner, and there’s still too much empty bread.”

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Follow Wayne Parry on Twitter at @WayneParryAC