N.J. budget deal reopens its casinos

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TRENTON, N.J. -- After being furloughed from their Atlantic City casino jobs for two days, cocktail waitress Bridget McCrossen, cook John Sadler and bartender Darrenn Williams got what they wanted yesterday.

What they got was an end to the six-day shutdown of New Jersey state government that was caused by a budget dispute between Gov. Jon Corzine and legislative leaders. The dispute had forced the layoffs of 200 casino inspectors, causing the first-ever shutdown of all 12 Atlantic City casinos starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Late yesterday afternoon Mr. Corzine announced an agreement, including a sales tax increase he's sought. That means the three workers -- along with 36,000 of their casino colleagues -- will return to their jobs, probably as soon as today.

"I love my job, and I love to deal with people. It's my bread and butter,'' said Ms. McCrossen, who's been serving cocktails at Bally's Park Place casino for 24 years, following a stint as a bunny at the former Playboy casino in Atlantic City.

She didn't want to go into detail about how much she's lost in tips from two nights off the job, but it was in the range of several hundred dollars.

She said the summer months, especially the week of July 4, when the Atlantic City boardwalk and casinos are normally teeming with tourists, are especially good for tips.

Ms. McCrossen, Mr. Williams and Mr. Sadler were among 600 casino workers who boarded 12 buses at 7 a.m. yesterday in Atlantic City and rode an hour north to Trenton to join several hundred other laid-off state workers demanding that Mr. Corzine and state legislators adopt a budget.

Altogether, about 45,000 state workers were furloughed since Saturday, after state officials put them into a "non-essential" category. The essential workers who stayed on the job included state police and prison guards.

Unions representing the laid-off workers included the Communications Workers of America, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Unite Here, the hotel/restaurant workers union at the casinos.

Nearly all of the angry workers wore red T-shirts at the protest, which ended at about noon. "Resolve the budget dispute!" read numerous protest signs.

"Our message is to get the budget done today," said Larry O'Brien, a Superior Court worker. "I can understand [politicians] not wanting to see taxes go up, but if you want the least amount of pain all around, that [sales tax increase] would be the least amount."

Democrats, who control the state legislature, until yesterday had opposed the sales tax increase, from the current 6 percent to 7 percent, which would cost the average New Jersey family an estimated $275 per year.

Ms. McCrossen said she lost more than that by just being off work for two nights.

Besides casino workers, others affected by the government shutdown were environmental workers, court workers, information technology specialists and vocational rehabilitation specialists.

"I'm a single mother and I have a daughter in college. I need my paycheck," said Cluny Colimon, who has worked for the Vocational Rehabilitation Division for 25 years.

About four hours after the protest, word came out of the Capitol that a deal had been reached.

Mr. Corzine wasn't celebrating, saying, "We have much more to do in the coming months and years to fix our state's finances."

Mr. Williams said he's been a bartender at the Hilton Hotel and Casino for more than 20 years. He likes talking to people and didn't like being forced to miss work.

"It's my calling," he said.

Mr. Sadler has been a cook at Diamond Jim's restaurant in the Tropicana casino for eight years and worked at the Trump Taj Mahal before that.

"Let's get this crisis resolved," he said. "This [casino shutdown] is crazy -- it's a mess. The little guys are the ones getting hurt in this budget fight. I need to work every day."

The standoff had gone on since Saturday, when Democratic legislators refused to go along with the Democratic governor's call to increase the state sales tax to raise $1 billion and close a state budget deficit.

Besides the casinos that were closed, other facilities including state beaches, parks and campgrounds, along with the state lottery and motor vehicle offices, were closed by the budget crisis.

Closing the lottery cost the state an estimated $2 million a day in revenue. Another $1.3 million was lost for each day the casinos were closed. The 12 casinos themselves lost an estimated $16 million to $20 million a day during the shutdown.

The Associated Press contributed. Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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