New Jersey's trying to tame its billionaires. Here's how it's working out

This May 21, 2015, photo shows protesters holding a poster critical of billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who is acquiring the Trump Taj Mahal casino from bankruptcy in Atlantic City, N.J.

ATLANTIC CITY --  It must be tempting for politicians and government appointees who sit on regulatory boards to try to wrestle with billionaires, because in New Jersey they keep doing it.

At least lately, especially along the Boardwalk, these super-rich guys and their companies are proving hard to control.

Here's how New Jersey has attempted to play with the big boys, not to mention the big businesses, and how we're scoring the tussles.

 1. Carl Icahn v. New Jersey Legislature

Icahn, the uber-wealthy businessman who acquired the properties formerly belonging to Trump Entertainment out of bankruptcy, shut down the Trump Taj Mahal in October after a protracted standoff with the casino workers union.

In response, State Sen. Jim Whelan of Atlantic County and State Senate President Steve Sweeney pushed a bill that would punish Icahn by barring him from reopening the casino hotel for five years unless he settled with the union. 

Originally conceived as an incentive to keep the property from closing, it ended up being not a carrot but a stick aimed solely at Icahn and the Taj, and not at any other property that had shut down (Trump Plaza, the Revel, Showboat, or the Atlantic Club). (It applied only to properties that had closed after January 2016.)

Still, the bill passed the Legislature overwhelmingly, only to be vetoed by Gov. Christie, who issued a scathing statement saying it was a "transparent" attempt to punish Icahn.

Icahn was equally disdainful of the government's attempt to show him who's the boss of the Boardwalk. He said the legislation and Sweeney had "already done irrevocable damage to Atlantic City specifically and New Jersey in general."

The erudite capitalist vowed to sell the Taj and slapped a deed restriction on the property that would prevent any future owner from operating the property as a casino. 

These deed restrictions, and similar ones imposed by Caesars Entertainment on the Showboat and Atlantic Club, have infuriated Republican State Assemblyman Chris Brown, who has been trying for three years to stop them. He also wants to limit owners to two casino licenses.

"The state has created an environment in which the tail wags the dog," he said. "Who are the casino owners to decide who should not be allowed to operate a casino ... at property in the tourism zone?"

On Monday, Sweeney and Whelan reintroduced the Icahn bill on the Senate floor in an attempt to override the governor's veto. But Sweeney pulled it before the vote had finished, as it did not have the votes.

 Icahn, meanwhile, despite the veto, says he is still planning to sell the property, once the flagship jewel in the portfolio of now-President Trump, "at a loss -- if possible." 

 WINNER: ICAHN 

 2. Glenn Straub v. the Casino Control Commission 

The Casino Control Commission is the board that has regulated billionaires on the Boardwalk for decades, overseeing licensing as businessmen like Trump opened and then serially bankrupt casinos. (The commission at first complained and then settled with Trump after his father came in and bought up $3.5 million in chips without gambling to keep things solvent.)

These days, the Casino Control Commission has a quirky new purported billionaire adversary: Glenn Straub, who bought the former $1.2 billion Revel out of bankruptcy for $82 million. He says he wants to reopen the property as TEN.

 Straub, despite a lot of grand plans, has resisted getting a casino license, arguing that because he will lease out the gaming operations, he and his company should be exempt. He resents the requirement on principle, and the details of that control, such as having to show front and back of check receipts.

But the commission's attempts to get tough, or at least consistent, with Straub -- ruling that he must get licensed -- do not seem to have moved the process along.

Straub may be serially adversarial, and it remains to be seen whether he is capable of opening the property in any real fashion. Like to the public.

Straub has repeatedly railed against the bureaucrats in state government who keep making demands on him, such as the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority's request for a landscaping plan. "Not one politician, not one agency ever called to say, 'Can I help you?' " he said during one rant.

Of late, Straub has claimed Revel/TEN would reopen Feb. 20, but according to Dale Finch, Atlantic City's head of licenses and inspections, nobody in the company has completed basic mercantile applications.

 On Monday, the winds whistled through the rusting porte cochere columns, Revel card flags were still visible in the front windows, some of which were blocked by wood.

Then again, the lights were on inside.

 On  Tuesday, reached by phone, Straub said: "I'm in the middle of a large meeting that might change what we’re talking about."

 SCORE: TIE GOES TO STRAUB. Straub won't open the Revel this weekend, but he gets to keep feeling aggrieved.

 

3. Media moguls: Billionaires own two newspapers in New Jersey, Warren Buffett (Press of Atlantic City, through his BH Media) and Donald Newhouse (NJ.com, through N.J. Advance Media).

 Christie tried and failed late last year to get rid of the requirement that municipalities place legal notices in newspapers, which was opposed vociferously by the media companies and others.

 At the time Christie, not feeling the billionaire love that he'd shown for Icahn, framed the issue as "Billionaire newspaper owners ... feeding at the Gov't trough. $80m subsidy for billionaires."

But the measure failed to gain support after that $80 million figure was called into question, and the arguments centered on transparency in government, not who owns newspapers, and whether changing the legal-notice requirement was designed to punish newspapers, not save costs. (The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philly.com are owned by a nonprofit foundation.)

WINNER: Newspapers (for now, at least). Whelan said Tuesday the bill might be revived but with some compromises that would reduce costs to municipalities. 

 4. Unnamed future presidential candidates: The New Jersey Legislature is considering a bill from Democrats that would require future presidential candidates to make their tax returns public in order to appear on the New Jersey ballot. 

WINNER: TBD

 5. Borgata corporate owners MGM International are currently negotiating with Atlantic City's state overseers to resolve the $150 million owed to Borgata in tax settlements.

 Borgata managed to get its assessed value slashed from $2.2 billion to $880 million.

 But Boyd Gaming subsequently sold its 50 percent share to MGM for $900 million, which in civilian math, if not tax-appeal math, might suggest the casino hotel was, in fact, worth $1.8 billion.

The Legislature adopted a new tax system for casinos this year, the PILOT, which Assemblyman Brown has criticized as a sweetheart deal for the casinos, including the Golden Nugget, owned by another billionaire, Tilman Fertitta, at the expense of working families. 

The $150 million debt contributed significantly to Atlantic City's current economic crisis as Borgata stopped paying its real estate taxes, and to a controversial state takeover.

Overseen by a judge, by several state mediators, the negotiations are now in the hands of the new state overseer, former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa. 

WINNER: Borgata. The house always wins.