New Jersey Casinos Close as Lawmakers Struggle to Reach Budget Deal

New Jersey's casinos ushered the last of the gamblers away from slot machines and tables Wednesday, and janitors locked the doors behind them as a state government shutdown claimed its latest victims.

In the first mass closure in the 28-year history of Atlantic City's legalized gambling trade, all 12 casinos were dark.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine addressed the Legislature at the Statehouse Wednesday morning, defending his position as a stalemate over the state budget entered its fifth day with no deal in sight. Corzine wants to raise the state sale tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to close a $4.5 billion state budget gap; lawmakers oppose the tax increase, estimated to cost the average New Jersey family $275 per year.

When the Legislature missed its July 1 deadline to pass a state budget because of the dispute, Corzine ordered the government shut down.

"It is deplorable that the people of this state are left in such a painful position," Corzine told the Legislature Wednesday. "The people of New Jersey have every right to be angry.

The closure of the Atlantic City casinos is a particularly hard hit. They have a $1.1 billion payroll, and the state takes an 8 percent cut — an estimated $1.3 million a day.

But with no state budget, New Jersey can't pay its state employees, meaning the casino inspectors who keep tabs on the money and whose presence is required at casinos are off the job and the casinos can't operate.

State parks and beaches were also closed Wednesday because of the lack of staff.

Fewer than half of the state's employees, about 36,000 in vital roles such as child welfare, state police and mental hospitals, remained on the job, and they were working without pay.

The doors to the Boardwalk side of Caesar's were locked by janitors. An announcement came over the public address system telling gamblers the casino was closing. Doors directly to the Trump Plaza Hotel casino also were locked. At other locations, access was open to hotel-casinos, but gaming floors were roped off, with guards standing nearby.

"It's like last call at a bar. It's a little bit eerie," said Michael Trager, 36, of Cincinnati, was playing a video poker machine at 10 minutes to 8 a.m. when an attendant told him to conclude his bet. "They said, 'That's it, you gotta cash out. We're closing."'

At Bally's Wild Wild West casino, a sign at the entrance read: "We apologize for the inconvenience. We will resume casino operations as soon as a NJ state budget resolution is reached."

"I can't understand how they can't find a solution to the budget," said Frank Cannatella, 65, of Staten Island, N.Y., an overnight guest at Trump Plaza.

Assembly Democrats worked through the night on a new budget proposal that could be introduced Wednesday, but the governor, without being specific, dismissed alternatives. He called them "a patchwork quilt of unknown, untested and unvetted ideas that we hope will once again simply get us to the finish line."

Atlantic City police spokesman Lt. Michael Tullio said it was quiet Wednesday morning in town after the shutdown.

Up to 15,000 casino employees are out of work because of the closings, and that number could double if the casinos remain closed through the weekend, according to Robert McDevitt, president of Local 54 of UNITE HERE, a labor union that represents rank-and-file casino hotel workers.

The gamblers were well aware of the loss for the city.

"They're going to lose a lot of money," said Jerome Harper, 42, of Philadelphia, who was playing the slots at Resorts Atlantic City. "It's bad. Why close it down when you could just do your job and put the budget together? That's what they're paid for."

Ruth Dodies, 77, of Philadelphia, stood at the entrance of the Trump Plaza Casino, simply staring at it.

"I never thought this would happen," she said.