Bettors are losers in N.J. budget tilt

Atlantic City casinos forced to close


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- In Bally's Casino yesterday there was plenty of bling but no ring, zero ding. Lights were flashing like a carnival midway: Joker Poker signs were blinking - claiming to be just about definitely prepared to pay some lucky sap $4,125.39 - and the Slingo machines shined with their usual unfulfilled promises of riches.

But the ca-chings were absent, the bloop-bloop-bloops of the slot machines mute, no silent prayers were answered with the crashing sound of shiny new quarters on shiny tin trays.

The casino, like much of New Jersey, was closed, the result of an impasse that began Saturday when the Legislature failed to adopt a state budget.

"I look at it this way: I'm saving money," said Kenneth Shean, 67, of West Springfield, Mass., who lost "enough" before he was booted from the slot machines at the Showboat Casino when all 12 of Atlantic City's gambling halls were ordered closed at 8 a.m. "If I can't bet, I can't lose."

A lot of casino workers, though, are losing lots of money - about $3 million a day, according to the Casino Association of New Jersey. And thousands more state employees will be going without a paycheck, at least for the immediate future.

So far, the Legislature has said no dice to Gov. Jon Corzine's proposal to increase the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to close a $4.5 billion budget gap. The increase would cost a New Jersey family about $275 per year on average.

When the sides failed to reach a compromise by Saturday's deadline for approving a budget, Corzine ordered a halt to all nonessential state services. The Casino Control Commission and an appeals court separately ruled that state gaming inspectors could not take to the casino floors, as required for the games to go on.

Corzine addressed the Legislature at the Statehouse yesterday morning, defending his position as the stalemate over the budget entered its fifth day with no deal in sight.

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

In all, more than 45,000 state employees have been furloughed and at least half of the 40,000 or so employees connected to gambling here won't be returning to work until a budget deal is reached.

And neither Corzine nor his fellow Democrats in the Legislature seemed willing to budge yesterday.

"The people are drunk but not happy," said Eyor Starkov, a 20-year-old pushing one of his Royal Rolling Chairs down Atlantic City's Boardwalk, hoping for someone willing to pay the $5 fare for a five-block ride. "When people win, they have money and want a ride and tip you. When nobody wins, they walk."

This is the first time since 1992, when casinos here began to operate 24 hours a day, that they have closed.

Yesterday, busloads of people were dropped at hotel doors only to discover that they had lost their bet that the Legislature would reach an agreement in time to keep the casinos open.

"We have a good product here, both with the gambling and with some good shows and great restaurants," said Mike Facenda, a spokesman for the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. "The problem is, right now we can only offer half the product."

In some casinos, the gambling floors were off-limits. In Bally's Casino, people could enter, but yellow caution tape kept them from the machines.

Casino buses were still in operation, but most carried passengers one way: out of Atlantic City.

The casino closure caused uncertainty among some Baltimore-area bus services that usually make daily trips to Atlantic City.

"Atlantic City is a major destination for all of the Baltimore carriers," said Sam Shea, owner of Golden Ring Travel. During the week, he has nearly 50 passengers a day headed to the casinos, Shea said. On weekends, twice as many make the three-hour trek.

Superior Tours picks up casino passengers in Towson and Pikesville every day except Saturdays, usually filling nearly all 55 seats on its buses, said Executive Vice President Jeff Komins. And the company operates charter buses to Atlantic City several times a week.

The company will offer refunds to those who want them, but Komins said most customers just want to reschedule as soon as the casinos reopen. "We're just waiting to hear," Komins said.

"If this were long-lived it would have a major impact on all of us," Shea said, but he expects the dispute to be resolved quickly.

At Dover Downs Hotel and Casino in Delaware, slots players knew of the closure in Atlantic City, though few had changed their plans.

Mac McCarthy was one who did. After hearing the news on the radio, he decided to drive to Dover from his home near Toms River, N.J.

"I go to Atlantic City all the time," said McCarthy, 77. "This was a good excuse to drive down and try something new."

A few players said there seemed to be a larger-than-usual crowd yesterday, at least early in the day.

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