By Hilary Russ
(Reuters) - New Jersey lawmakers approved a package of legislation on Thursday aimed at steadying the finances of the struggling gambling hub of Atlantic City.
The legislation authorizes casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes for the next 15 years. The goal is to stabilize the city's tax base, decimated by the casinos' successful property tax appeals as their value has dwindled amid gaming competition from neighboring states.
Other bills passed provide additional school aid from the state and the reallocation of an alternative tax to pay debt-service costs on the city's municipal bonds.
The package now goes to Republican Governor Chris Christie, although it is unclear whether he plans to sign the bills into law. Spokespeople for Christie did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
A spokesman for Atlantic City emergency manager Kevin Lavin, appointed by Christie in January, said it was "premature to comment on details of the legislation until it becomes law."
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said he worked closely with Christie and his team.
"We look forward to the governor reviewing the bills and signing them into law," he said in a statement.
The legislation, along with $40 million of city-wide budget cuts and $20 million of school district cuts, will stabilize the economy and encourage development, he said.
"Redirecting $60 million of tourism marketing funding to address the city's financial debt will ultimately make Atlantic City much stronger," Guardian said of one of the bills.
The city last issued bonds in May at high interest rates through a state program.
The Casino Association of New Jersey urged Christie to sign the legislation. So, too, did state Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, a Democrat who represents Atlantic County, which lost more jobs in 2014 than any other large U.S. county with the closure of four casinos and the ripple effects.
"I'm hopeful Gov. Christie will do the right thing and sign these bills without delay," Mazzeo said in a statement. "We must stop the bleeding... these initiatives should be a catalyst that drives hundreds of millions of new investment to the city."
The legislation authorizes casinos to collectively pay a total of $150 million for two years and $120 million for the following 13 years. The total amount could rise based on gross gaming revenues.
Separately, the Senate passed a Republican-sponsored bill to grow smaller-scale boutique casinos, which now goes to the Assembly.
(Reporting by Hilary Russ and Jessica DiNapoli in New York. Editing by G Crosse and Andre Grenon)