07/06/2006 11:00PM

Casinos deserve 'essential' tag

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Finally, the lawmakers of New Jersey have come to their senses and are in the process of approving a budget. What went on this week makes me embarrassed to be from New Jersey. And, things like this may be one reason my family moved from there when I was 10 years old.

By now I'm sure you know about the deadlock between New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and state lawmakers concerning the state's new budget, which resulted in the closure of the state's racetracks and casinos on Wednesday morning. Gaming in New Jersey came to a screeching halt. A disagreement on how to fund the budget and pay off the state's $4.5 billion deficit hit a political brick wall that resulted in shutting down all but the "essential services" provided by the New Jersey government.

Now there is no argument that emergency personnel are "essential," but, considering the casino industry pays the salaries for the New Jersey gaming monitors needed to keep the casinos open, and those same casinos feed the state's coffers by an estimated $1.3 million a day while injecting a payroll to New Jersey's tax-paying work force of $1.1 billion, one wonders how "non-essential" the casinos really are in financing the Garden State budget. According to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission records, Atlantic City's dozen casinos took in $16.3 million a day last July.

While Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands were forced to cancel racing cards through Friday, shutting down the state's casinos borders on a government sequel to the movie "Dumb and Dumber."

Yeah, man, that makes sense. Cut off hefty revenue streams the state takes in against a minimal government oversight cost. Can I get a New Jersey lawmaker to balance my checkbook?

Five casinos on the Atlantic City boardwalk are owned by Las Vegas-based casino companies. Harrah's Entertainment operates its Harrahs brand property along with Bally's, Caesars and the Showboat, while Aztar has the Tropicana. Las Vegas-based MGM Mirage and Boyd Gaming jointly operate the city's most successful complex at the Borgata, while The Donald had the most to lose, with all three of his Trump Entertainment Resorts - Trump Marina, Trump Plaza, and Trump Taj Mahal - at the New Jersey Shore.

Although all of those casino company stocks took a hit on Wall Street on Thursday, it's the estimated 20,000-plus casino workers, who are the very taxpayers of the state, that are losing money as innocent victims of the budget impasse. Estimates on the job loss from ancillary businesses more than doubles that total. And, at a peak time for New Jersey tourism - with the beaches, historical sites, and parks also closed - the budget debacle could have far-reaching and long-lasting ramifications for the Shore destination.

The first shutdown in the 28-year history of casino gambling in the state will certainly make future investments there a dicey situation.

One wonders why the 190 gaming inspectors who monitor the casino activities could not have been considered part of law enforcement, thus part of the "essential services" of the state. And, with all this swirling in the East, one wonders if this could happen in Las Vegas.

That question was answered in a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal story this week. Nevada Gaming Control Board member Mark Clayton assured that it would not happen here. Clayton said, "Given the depth and breadth of gaming and its importance to [Nevada], I imagine that [to keep gaming going] would be an easy conclusion for any governor to make."

You would think so.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.