Atlantic City does a Vegas act

Sep 3, 2002 7:39 AM

Jersey, meet Vegas. From beer to jackpots to check cashing, Atlantic City gamers are copying Las Vegas casinos like never before.

Thanks to new legislation signed into law by Gov. James McGreevey, New Jersey casinos can now:

”¡ Sell beer by the bottle, instead of by the cup.

”¡ Cash personal checks for up to $5,000, instead of the old $1,500 limit.

”¡ Stay open 24 hours, instead of taking four hours off each day.

”¡ Offer noncash jackpots such as cars and jewelry.

The changes, among 36 alterations to the Casino Control Act, help ease the sting of new, higher taxes being imposed on New Jersey resorts. And operators won another concession from regulators ”” requiring the Casino Control Commission to act on proposed changes to casinos’ internal controls within 15 days.

"This helps us streamline the regulatory process. It really requires the Casino Control Commission to act much quicker. Now sometimes it gets bogged down,’’ said David Jonas, general manager of Harrah’s Atlantic City.

Last year, there were some 1,200 proposed changes, most of which were handled by the commission within 30 days. But about 10 percent of the requests ”” mostly invisible to the customer ”” took months to decide, frustrating casino operators eager to make quick financial accounting or equipment changes to improve efficiency.

Though welcome, the fast-track rule still falls short of Nevada, where casinos can institute a host of internal changes without prior approval.

"Our philosophy is to let operators operate,’’ said Greg Gale, head of Gaming Control’s audit division. Generally, casinos simply bundle up their new procedures and deliver them to regulators twice a year.   (For new games, Nevada adheres to a 30- or 90-day testing period. Gale emphasizes that approval must be obtained before any new games roll onto the casino floor.)

"We appreciate the compliment,’’ Keith Copher, head of Nevada’s enforcement division, said of New Jersey’s Vegas-style deregulation. But Strip casino managers aren’t exactly quaking in their loafers at the prospect of stiffer competition.

Copher notes, for example, that cocktail waitresses in the Silver State have always delivered complimentary alcoholic beverages to casino customers ”” something that Jersey is only now beginning to allow.

Even the Garden State’s liberalized check-cashing limit of $5,000 is tame by comparison; Nevada sets no specific limit for qualified customers.

Graphically illustrating how far Atlantic City lags behind in user-friendliness, casinos there are just now being told they can have their main entrance open onto the gaming floor. What a concept!

Regardless of the regulatory shuffle, New Jersey gamers are still groaning under the load of higher tax bills. With the latest hike in the state business tax, Atlantic City casinos figure they’ll pay $17 million to $20 million more in taxes this year. Park Place Entertainment expects it will shell out an additional $6 million at its four properties.

And those add-ons don’t even include Jersey’s 8 percent gross gaming levy, which tops the 6.25 percent rate paid by Nevada’s biggest casinos.