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Last-minute law will make Pa. second only behind Nev. in number of slot machines

HARRISBURG, Pa. (BP)–During the last hours of legislation before their summer break, Pennsylvania legislators passed a law allowing as many as 61,000 slot machines into the state, a number that would be exceeded only by Nevada.

The most expansive gambling measure to be enacted by a state in several years was pushed by Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell as a solution to the state’s property tax problem. Officials predict the slot machines will bring in $1 billion a year for reducing taxes, according to The New York Times July 5.

“Tonight the people of Pennsylvania are true winners,” Rendell, a Democrat, said after the House passed the bill July 4, according to The Times. “We are beginning to reverse the tide of unfairly burdening Pennsylvania homeowners.”

But advocates against gambling are angered by the last-minute law, saying it was not passed with the best interest of the citizens in mind.

“I am really mad,” Dianne Berlin, vice chair of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, told Baptist Press. “We’ve been under the threat of slot machines for the 10 years that I’ve been involved. One of the things that we knew was that they would try to pull a stunt, but we had no idea how bad the stunt was going to be.”

Berlin explained that the slot machine measure was proposed as an amendment to a bill that was on its third consideration in the end hours of the legislative session. It was not a standalone bill, and the total legislature did not have a chance to review it.

“By doing it this way, they cheated the public out of an opportunity to examine the bill and all its components and have it go through due process, which would be many hearings with debate maybe for months on this,” she said.

“I see this as an abdication of our legislators for working on behalf of the citizens. They are working on behalf of the gambling interests, and they sold out for all kinds of promises of stadiums and so-called property tax relief, which was what the governor used to ‘tout’ the benefits of gambling,” Berlin, a Pennsylvania resident, added.

Because the measure was rushed through the legislature, Berlin said, some important amendments were not passed. One would have prevented convicted felons from owning casinos, but as the law stands, felons who have not been convicted within the last 15 years are allowed to have a license.

“I still am in shock over this and I cannot believe that legislators in good conscience would refuse a vote that no felon should have a license, especially when this business is riddled with corruption and opportunities for all kinds of criminal activity,” she said.

Another amendment would have prevented casinos from being closer than a mile from public school property, but the amendment failed. An application already received for slot machines is from a racetrack that adjoins school property, Berlin said.

Berlin expressed concern over the loopholes in the law, particularly those that grant the newly-created gambling board “unbelievable powers.” And the law includes a provision for elected officials to own 1 percent of the gambling venues.

“Not one mention that I have heard has talked about the negative impact of gambling,” Berlin said, “like where the money is going to come from to cover the $3 of extra state funds that will be needed to cover the damage of every $1 of so-called state tax benefit.”

Opponents of the measure say the costs arriving with big-time gambling include infrastructure improvements and increased social services.

Berlin and others are also not pleased with the number of slot machines that will be allowed by the bill.

“The original rumblings that we heard was that they wanted to just have [3,000] slot machines at four racetracks,” she said. “Now it’s up to 15 licenses with 61,000 slot machines. That makes us second only to Nevada.”

Slot machines are currently the most addictive form of gambling, Berlin said, with players able to bet $54 per minute on five-cent machines.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican, is pushing a plan to legalize slot machines in his state. The Times said efforts by Rendell and Ehrlich represent a broad trend among state officials in recent years to solve pressing budget problems through measures other than raising sales or income taxes.

“Right now, there is no feasible way to get property tax relief other than gaming,” Rendell said in The Times.

Polls reported 10 days after the Pennsylvania legislature passed the slot machine law that residents of the state support slot machine parlors by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1, according to The Patriot-News in Harrisburg July 14.

“I think people are still living in this bubble that was presented to them by the governor and the pro-slots legislators where … this is a way to get what they want without having to pay for it,” Kathleen Daughtery, director of the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania, told The Patriot-News. “But for the state to become addicted to this [gaming] revenue means the state will always need it, and always need more.”

Berlin predicted what is happening in Pennsylvania will soon spread to other states because of the nature of the gambling interests.

“It only makes predators stand up and take notice,” she said. “These people are vultures and they aren’t going to be happy until they have every morsel of flesh. They’re looking in all different directions. These are not nice, kind people we’re dealing with. These are not people who have the greater good as one of their goals.”

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  • Erin Curry