TRENTON –Senator Jim Whelan today said he believes the best way to keep Atlantic City casinos open in the event of another government shutdown is to classify State workers who oversee “revenue producing activities” as essential employees who must be kept on their jobs through State emergencies.
“Obviously, the casinos provide vital programs for seniors and the disabled with the $450 million they provide each year to the Casino Revenue Fund,” said Senator Whelan, Chairman of the Senate Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee. “But I agree the State workers who oversee and regulate the State Lottery and the racetracks also should be considered essential because those activities are revenue producers too.”
Senator Whelan’s panel discussed, but did not vote on, legislation designed to enable casinos to remain open in the event of a government shutdown similar to the one of July 2006 when a State budget impasse forced casinos to close for three days and cost more than $50 million in lost wages and revenues in direct and related industries in Atlantic City.
“My bill (S-1247) can be a framework for clarifying that State workers overseeing critical revenue producing industries like casinos, racetracks, the Lottery and wholesale alcoholic beverage distributors are essential workers who should be kept on their jobs during State emergencies like a government shutdown.”
When budget deliberations remained deadlocked in 2006 beyond the constitutional deadline of July 1 for enacting a new State spending plan, more than 100 State workers charged with overseeing casinos were forced to leave their posts with the Casino Control Commission and the Division of Gaming Enforcement, a move that padlocked casinos from July 5th through July 7th – the height of the summer resort season.
“The lasting damage was done to the workers in the casinos, the hotels and in the restaurants who were never made whole once the State shutdown ended,” said Senator Whelan, D-Atlantic. “That can’t happen again.”
Legal experts differ on whether the Governor can expand on the narrow interpretation of “essential workers” that he took in 2006 to keep on the job only State workers who were deemed needed to protect members of the public from harm.
“I happen to believe the approach in my bill is sound legally, but I also believe it’s worth trying regardless,” said Senator Whelan. “Ultimately, that’s what the Supreme Court is for.”
Senator Jeff Van Drew, sponsor of a bill, S-970, to separate funding for the Casino Control Commission from the State appropriations act, to maintain available support to keep the casinos open under State supervision, said he will support whatever works legally.
“I’ll support whatever it takes to keep the casinos open if there’s ever another shutdown,” he said. A third proposal, SCR-26, would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment to keep the casinos open.
Senator Whelan said he would continue to work on the wording of his proposal, S-1247, to ensure the measure includes all State workers who oversee what it describes as “critical activities necessary to preserve and protect the State’s financial assets, resources and revenue-generating operations that are licensed by the State.”