New Jersey Casinos Brace for Reopening After Government Shutdown

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Nearly a week after New Jersey government stopped fully functioning, lawmakers on Friday edged toward voting on a budget that would kick-start state spending and allow Atlantic City casinos to reopen.

Legislative committees were considering measures Friday that would clear the way for voting on a new state budget later in the night. Some bills had passed committees by 10 p.m., but full votes seemed hours away.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine would have to sign an executive order to formally end the shutdown, which forced gambling operations to close Wednesday for the first time in the 28-year history of legal gambling in New Jersey.

In Atlantic City, gamblers roamed the purple-carpeted hallways and employees took turns asking the $1.3 million-a-day question: "When are we opening?"

Trump Entertainment chief operating officer Mark Juliano said he believed casinos would open at midnight Friday at the earliest.

New Jersey reaps $1.3 million a day in casino revenue.

The impasse left the state with no means to spend money. A July 1 constitutional deadline to adopt a new budget was missed because Democrats who control the state Assembly balked at the governor's proposal to increase the state sales tax.

Under a compromise reached Thursday, the Democratic governor and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. agreed to increase the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, and put half the money earned from it toward easing property taxes, among the nation's highest.

The tax increase would raise $1.1 billion. Corzine had wanted all the money to go toward helping close a $4.5 billion budget deficit and help ease future budget woes.

To ensure the sales tax money doesn't get spent elsewhere, Roberts introduced two constitutional amendments Friday. One would ask voters in November to dedicate half the sales tax increase revenue this year to property tax relief and the other would ask them in November 2007 to dedicate all the sales tax increase revenue to property tax relief.

The second amendment differs from what Corzine said when he announced the budget agreement on Thursday.

"It certainly is a goal. However, we are also aware that next year's deficit will already be around $2 billion," Corzine spokesman Anthony Coley said. "As the governor said yesterday, when we restore fiscal integrity to our state's budget once and for all, he is committed to using the revenues generated by the sales tax increase to property tax relief."

The sales tax increase is expected to cost the average New Jersey family $275 per year, according to fiscal experts.

The casino closings turned normally bustling slot parlors and blackjack pits into oddly silent areas roped off and protected by security guards. The gambling halls had to shut down because they require state inspectors on the scene to operate.

That forced some 36,000 dealers, cocktail servers and slot machine attendants of Atlantic City's 12 casino-hotels off the job, too. Casino restaurants closed and bus lines stopped sending motor coaches to Atlantic City because few people wanted to go if they couldn't gamble.