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N.J. Budget Approved, Shutdown Ends

Gov. Jon S. Corzine issued an executive order early Saturday that ended a weeklong state government shutdown, bringing slot machine bells noisily to life as Atlantic City casinos reopened.

The governor acted minutes after lawmakers approved a $30.9 billion state budget that increases the state sales tax, ending the stalemate.

"I now feel comfortable we can begin the orderly restoring of the business of government," Corzine said.

The 12 casinos, which closed Wednesday, got permission to resume business at 7 a.m. On Monday, 45,000 furloughed state workers could return to work, although exact plans were not immediately announced.

Lottery sales resumed Saturday morning, and racetracks were set to reopen later in the day. State parks were to reopen Sunday. All state services were expected to operate as normal by Monday.

The Senate voted 23-17 to approve the budget at 4:20 a.m. The Assembly followed suit at 5:40 a.m., by a 44-35 vote.

Corzine said he hoped to sign the budget later Saturday, although he wanted to take some time to review it.

"We're going to do a thorough and professional job, as good as anyone can possibly do operating on three hours sleep three nights in a row," he said.

The governor's executive order and the reopening of casinos led gamblers to their places just after 7:30 a.m. in a mostly empty slots parlor at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City.

"If he hadn't signed it, we'd have left this morning," said Vivian Zearfaus, 62, of Southampton, N.J., feeding a slot machine a $20 bill.

The budget crisis began when Democrats who control the state Assembly balked at the Democratic governor's proposal to increase the sales tax. The impasse caused the Legislature to miss a July 1 constitutional deadline for passing a new budget. With no authority to spend money, Corzine ordered nonessential government services suspended.

The budget reflects a compromise reached Thursday between Corzine and legislative leaders that will increase the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent and set aside half the proceeds for property tax relief.

"With the budget crisis finally behind us, it is imperative that we move quickly to address the number-one concern of residents: New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property taxes," Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. said.

The tax increase would raise $1.1 billion. Corzine had wanted all the money to go toward helping close a $4.5 billion budget deficit and help ease future budget woes.

The increase is expected to cost the average New Jersey family $275 per year, according to fiscal experts.

In all, the budget plan contains about $1.8 billion in tax increases. About $300 million in special projects were added late Friday by Democrat legislators, including many that would help municipalities and organizations represented by Democratic leaders.

That, as well as the failure to get a budget passed by the deadline, drew the scorn of Republican lawmakers.

Assemblyman Joseph Malone, R-Burlington, called the budget standoff and final product an "insult to the intelligence of residents in the state of New Jersey."

The casino closings, the first in the 28-year history of legal gambling in New Jersey, occurred because the gambling halls require state inspectors on the scene to operate.

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