Atlantic City's hardships and perhaps its tenuous hopes revolve around tourism. So it's fitting that Trenton's perplexing response to the resort's crisis can be credited to none other than New Jersey's tourist in chief, Chris Christie.
Christie is not only the Garden State's governor but also, since he began running for president, a sometime visitor. You may have caught the recent whistle-stop during which he declared Atlantic City subject to a state . . . something. "You can call it what you want to call it," Christie said. And you might as well, because unlike the raft of rescue bills he had just finished vetoing, the takeover proposal remains fundamentally nebulous.
Christie's haphazard, ineffectual, and ultimately nonsensical approach to Atlantic City is increasingly typical. The state's problems have accumulated and deepened as surely as his presidential ambitions have reduced him to the occasional cameo in the state he nominally runs. In lieu of governance, New Jersey gets guest appearances.
Consider Christie's recent and largely unexplained veto of 65 bills. Even the means of the mass rejection were essentially passive - so-called pocket vetoes that allowed the bills to expire with the legislative session.
One of them, spurred by a court ruling that found an ostensibly nonprofit North Jersey hospital to be for-profit and therefore taxable, would have established payments in lieu of property taxes for hospitals statewide. The bill enjoyed the support of hospitals and an impressive bipartisan consensus: It passed the Assembly 61-9 and the Senate 37-0.
And yet for Christie's veto, which exposed hospitals to lawsuits and deprived municipalities of some $20 million in annual revenue, his office's only gesture toward an explanation was that a flurry of end-of-session legislation "is never a good formula for effectively doing public business." That suggests Christie's extended absences have caused him to forget how public business is done in his native state. Newark's Star-Ledger quoted Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex), a sponsor of the bill, wondering whether the real problem was that it could be construed as a tax increase and used against Christie's presidential bid.
Lawmakers were also searching for explanations for Christie's simultaneous vetoes of four bills designed to stabilize Atlantic City's finances amid plummeting casino revenues. While certainly debatable, most had been passed with changes that the governor himself requested in the course of conditionally vetoing them two months earlier. Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic) captured the contradiction succinctly: "Governor Christie has vetoed his own bills."
In their place, the governor joined Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian last week for an announcement of a vaguely construed state takeover that seemed designed primarily to end local officials' loose talk of bankruptcy.
New Jersey's headless government is foundering on other fronts, too, from Christie's abandoned promise to address its pension crisis to his failure to find a way to replenish road, bridge, and transit funds.
Meanwhile, the governor could be found criticizing rival Donald Trump's decision to skip last week's debate in Iowa as unbecoming of an aspiring president. "That's what you learn when you're a governor," he told Fox News. "You've got to show up."
He said it.