Politics trumps gamblers

Gamblers in Atlantic City’s casinos were ordered to leave the tables and slot machines on Wednesday because of a budget crisis in the state legislature.

The casinos in Atlantic City, an East Coast cousin of the more glitzy Las Vegas, are not allowed to operate without state regulators in place and the budget crisis prompted New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine to order such nonessential state employees to stay home.

All 12 of the city’s casinos, which raked in $5 billion of gross gaming revenue last year, were closed in a move that will cost the state $1.3 million in lost tax revenue a day. The casinos were allowed a reprieve to stay open over the July 4 holiday weekend but the ax fell on Wednesday.

B.J. Novak, 56, from Philadelphia, said he left the floor of Trump Plaza at 7 a.m. to get some food. When he tried to get back in shortly after 8 a.m., he was turned away.

“I’ve been here all night. I just left to get some food and came back but I guess I didn’t make it,” said Novak, who had dark circles under his eyes.

“I’m down about 1,200 bucks, now they’re going to be closed for good so I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” he said.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine told state legislators he was willing to compromise on ways to fill the $4.5 billion deficit in his $31 billion budget, but he would not accept a budget that was balanced with what he called “speculative” measures.

“It’s deplorable that the people of this state are left in such a painful position but I don’t have the authority to simply ignore and keep certain things open just because it makes life easier,” Corzine said in a speech to legislators.

“I have no authority nor is there any law to support the notion that casino inspectors are essential state employees,” Corzine said. State employees deemed essential, such as police and health workers, are exempt from the furlough.

Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., which operates three hotel casinos, and Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, a joint venture between Boyd Gaming Corp. and MGM Mirage, said their casinos were closed.

Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which is the world’s largest gaming operator and has four casinos in the second-largest U.S. gambling market, was also closed.

“The most disappointing item is we have 15,000 people affected who are now earning a fraction of what they would be on a normal July week day,” said John Payne, Atlantic City regional president for Harrah’s.

Other casino operators in Atlantic City include Aztar Corp. and Colony Capital LLC.

The closure could cost gaming operators more than $10 million a day in wagers. The casinos bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes for the state every year.

“It definitely doesn’t make any sense, because this is what brings in the money,” said Cary Putzer, 51, a gambler from Queens, New York, who was playing at “21” when a loudspeaker announcement told players to leave the tables.

Corzine wants to raise sales tax by one percentage point to seven percent. Legislators have offered a compromise under which half the additional revenue from that would fund property tax relief, leaving some $600 million to be made up by further cuts and efficiencies or new revenue raising measures.

Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Democratic Speaker Joseph Roberts who has led opposition to the sales tax hike, said Assembly Democrats were meeting on Wednesday.

(Additional Reporting by Paritosh Bansal, Joan Gralla and Claudia Parsons in New York)

© 2006 Reuters