TRENTON, N.J. – Gov. Jon S. Corzine closed the state government Saturday amid a bitter dispute with fellow Democrats in the Assembly over his plan to increase the sales tax, threatening to shutter beaches, parks and possibly casinos in the coming days.
After Saturday's constitutional deadline to adopt a new balanced budget passed without agreement, Corzine signed an executive order just after 9:30 a.m., a grim climax to weeks of budget squabbling among Democrats who control state government but haven't been able to agree on a budget bill.
"It gives me no joy, no satisfaction, no sense of empowerment to do what I'm forced to do here," Corzine said.
Within minutes of Corzine signing the order, road construction projects were required to begin winding down. Motor vehicle offices planned to close at noon. About 45,000 state employees were immediately furloughed. State courts were closed for anything but emergencies. State-run beaches are set to close Wednesday morning.
Services such as state police, prisons, mental hospitals and child welfare were to keep operating. The casinos could be forced to close because they require state monitoring, though the casino industry is challenging a possible closure in court.
A bid by Atlantic City's 12 casinos Friday to get state monitors declared "essential employees" who would stay on the job despite a government shutdown is now before an emergency appellate court panel, casino association lawyer John Kearney said Saturday.
The dispute centers on Corzine's determination to raise the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to help close a $4.5 billion budget deficit.
Corzine sees the increase as a vital step toward providing reliable annual revenue, but most Democrats in the Assembly — the lower house of the state Legislature — and several Senate Democrats say the plan is unnecessary.
Opponents have questioned the need for a sales tax increase, predicting voter backlash and demanding that any increase be reserved for property tax reform.
The state Constitution requires a balanced budget by July 1, but the deadline has been missed four times in five years. Nothing happened when deadlines were missed before, but the state never went past the morning of July 2 without an adopted budget. Without one, the state has no authority to spend money.