By Rachel Stengel and Amar Kapadia
Former Gov. Brendan T. Byrne said in a talk at Rider this week that he wishes he handled the development of legalized gambling in Atlantic City differently.
He discussed the issue of zoning and the power given to the municipality of Atlantic City on Tuesday, April 14, at a question-and-answer session in Daly’s Mercer Room with Ben Dworkin of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
“We should have done a lot more on how Atlantic City was zoned,” he said. “We should not have given as much power to the municipality of Atlantic City as we did. I could have done a better job.”
Atlantic City recently has faced a four-year decline in tourism due to the economic downturn and competition from surrounding states.
On Tuesday, April 19, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) voted to turn over control of certain responsibilities from the municipality of Atlantic City to the state. A Tourism District will be developed, which will include the casino district. The CRDA will take control of the Tourism District beginning May 1. The state will now control the planning, zoning, public safety and cleanliness of the city.
It’s hard to imagine now, but at one point in time, there was no Meadowlands Arena. Even harder to fathom was that there was no casino gambling in either Atlantic City or anywhere else in the state. There was no state financing for public schools, the Pinelands were not protected and getting around was difficult because there was no New Jersey Transit. All this and more came under Byrne’s administration.
Byrne, 87, a native of West Orange, N.J., is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He was also a B-17 navigator in WWII.
Byrne began his career as a clerk for Judge Joseph Weintraub, who later became a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice. In 1956, he worked as Gov. Robert B. Meyner’s executive secretary and later was appointed Essex County Prosecutor. While Byrne worked alongside Meyner, he made a vow to be a catalyst for change.
“If I ever become governor, I’m not going to wait for things to happen,” he said. “I’m going to make them happen.”
Subsequently, Byrne was appointed appointed as a judge on the Superior Court of New Jersey by William T. Cahill.
Byrne resigned as a Superior Court judge to run for governor in 1973. After much campaigning, Byrne won the election and his historic, two-term career as New Jersey Governor began.
Establishing the New Jersey state income tax is one of Byrne’s lasting legacies. According to the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, Byrne’s controversial school finance and tax reform program, enacted in 1976, increased the state’s share of public school costs to meet a State Supreme Court mandate in the Robinson v. Cahill decision, and provided a variety of other forms of property tax relief, all financed by the first state income tax.
Byrne ordered New Jersey schools to be closed in order for the legislature to approve new financing. He claimed that his income tax system would be beneficial to New Jersey.
“I wouldn’t take anything else,” Byrne said. “I could have put together a patchwork of taxes that would have gotten me by. I figured as long as we’re doing this, we might as well do it right.”
Byrne still faced opposition to his income tax legislation during his reelection campaign in 1977. He claimed that members of his own cabinet did not believe he could win the votes. Confidence from his Attorney General, John Degnan, inspired Byrne to pursue a second term. He won the election and continued his historic term as governor.
Again, the governor was faced with opposition as he attempted to legalize gambling. The governor of Florida at the time mocked Byrne’s attempt to legalize casino gambling. He compared legalizing gambling to believing in the Tooth Fairy, according to Byrne.
With the current education reforms proposed by Governor Chris Christie, education is a front page topic. Byrne was asked whether money makes a difference in education. He said that the state has the money necessary to fund education, but it ultimately boils down to students’ motivation to learn.
“A lot of people are not interested in being educated,” he said. “It’s not that the teachers’ can’t teach, but that the students don’t want to learn. It’s challenging to try to get the students more motivated to learn.”