Its Time to Kick PA’s Gambling Habit

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The clerk recorded the final vote to legalize casino gambling in the state House of Representatives at 1:39 am on July 4, 2004–thirteen years ago this week.

I remember the details because I keep a framed copy of the final 113-to-88 vote printout to remind me of the carnival of events surrounding its passage.

With the promise and delivery of tens of millions in taxpayer-funded projects and millions in campaign contributions, organized gambling slugged out a messy 11th-hour victory. By hook or crook, the legislature made history.

When making the three-and-a-half-hour drive home following the vote, I asked what many of us–opponents and supporters of gambling alike–were wondering: "What have we just done?"

Years later, at least part of the answer is clear.

No one knew, despite the dazzling fiscal and cultural benefits predicted to accompany the arrival of 61,000 slot machines.

With little time to review the final law or its implications, the gambling lobby drowned out any concern that the outcome would be anything less than a straight flush.

A little less than a century before, the barons of big rail, steel, and coal would have been the top-hatted, mustachioed men calling the shots behind the brass rail separating legislators from lobbyists in the chamber.

Back in the smokey days of ashtrays and spittoons on the House floor and more literal forms of arm-twisting, the new Capitol was a temple of art and enlightenment. Even still, seeds of corruption were planted deep into the foundation.

Harrisburg operated under a premise that politicians have their price.

While Teddy Roosevelt’s 1906 dedication is often only remembered for an off-hand comment that our State Capitol was the "handsomest" building, the address he gave on the steps on Third Street is all but forgotten.

In it, TR praised the "wonderful new conditions for vast industrial growth" that accompanied the construction of Pennsylvania’s grand complex, but warned that citizens should be trained "in conscience and character, until he grows to abhor corruption and greed and tyranny and brutality and to prize justice and fair dealing."

Flanked on the bunting-draped platform by Pennsylvania’s top pols and power-brokers, the president used none of his dedicatory remarks to flatter the architects or artisans who conceived and birthed the building.

Get over it. Pass a shale tax, already: Editorial
Get over it. Pass a shale tax, already: Editorial
The industry’s winning streak continues. You continue to lose.

Instead, he expended nearly all his firepower on a warning against a kind of aimless moral bankruptcy that comes when wealth is the only object of state leaders.

On the day we passed casinos, some 98 years after TR christened the Capitol, Pennsylvania was entering the era of debt management and crisis funding.

By the time gambling was considered the last remaining option for funding public priorities, unfair trade, tax, and regulatory policies had decimated large sections of Pennsylvania manufacturers.

The healthy spiritual, community, and cultural life that once thrived in the sunshine of mile-long production facilities also collapsed. Only a few scraps of this social fabric remained, like volunteer fire companies, ethnic food festivals, and social and fraternal clubs.

The late Gov. Robert P. Casey linked Pennsylvania’s decline to the disappearance of "the building block of all civil society–the family."

He added: "Our error has been very expensive. It is expensive to the people of this country. As a governor, I see that expense in every line of our human services budget."

These three, commonsense steps would close Pa’s budget hole: Madeleine Dean
These three, commonsense steps would close Pa’s budget hole: Madeleine Dean
A severance tax, combined with a lower sales tax and higher personal income tax would get us where we need to be.

When Pennsylvania finally succumbed to the sweet song of the casino lobby in the early 2000s, it was a patch for a leaky ship–a lifeline from school property taxes and budget holes.

Gambling is the job-saving, tax-reducing, pain-free alternative to raising taxes or cutting services.

Ironically, gambling’s champions sold it as financial freedom.

The only losers would be seniors on fixed incomes. According to the law’s chief patron, then-Gov. Ed Rendell, losing would be culturally enriching.

"These are people who lead very gray lives," Rendell later told the Lancaster New Era. "They don’t see their sons and daughters very much. They don’t have much social interaction. There’s not a whole lot of good things that happen in their month. But if you put them on the bus, they’re excited. They’re happy. They have fun. They see bright lights.

"They hear music. They pull that slot machine and with each pull they think they have a chance to win. It’s unbelievable what brightness and cheer it brings to older Pennsylvanians," Rendell told the newspaper.

Then Senate Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer was blunter in assessing the scheme to use gambling cash to prop up underfunded areas of government. "We must addict tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have to lose to make this work," Jubelirer argued against the bill during floor debate. "I’m not sure that’s such good economic policy."

As Pennsylvania’s budget follies tumble into 2017, the debate begs for answers on education, human services, corrections, and public pensions. Once again, the gambling lobby offers options, including a play for younger, more vulnerable online gamblers.

Their menu of solutions guarantees to release legislators to return home in time for family shore trips, with none of the harsh blowbacks of broad-based tax hikes.

Pennsylvania’s flirtation with high-stakes gambling is now a de facto marriage. States with deeper entanglements like Nevada, California, New Jersey, and West Virginia serve as unglamorous warnings for Pennsylvania. States never wean themselves, and there is never enough.

States, like problem gamblers, need to learn their limits.

As another anniversary of the July 4 casino vote passes, candidates for governor should begin to propose ways to ease out of our multi-year lease on gambling’s house of cards.

While many Capitol reformers–including members of House and Senate leadership–have won reform measures in areas that will save taxpayers millions, the ongoing dance with the gambling lobby exposes a bigger challenge: the need for imagination beyond the unsustainable promises which always accompany gambling’s risky bet.

Jeff Coleman is a former member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and principal of, a Harrisburg-based branding and communications agency. Email the author at [email protected]