State’s school boards won’t gamble on Rendell

Columnist : Albert Paschall

About this time every year I grab a couple of rolls of quarters and head for Atlantic City. On the way down I watch for the billboards that advertise the free buffets so that when I donate my money to one casino or another at least I know I’ll get a free lunch out of the trip. If I bring twenty bucks I’m usually good for about a half hour at a slot machine before I reach into the bottom of the bucket and come up empty-handed.

In Pennsylvania the state’s 501 school districts are being asked to do the same thing. Governor Rendell wants school districts all over the state to step up to the slot machines and throw their dollars in. They’ve got until May 30 to buy into something called Act 72 and the governor says it is ‘nuts’ that only about 10% of the school boards in the state have decided to roll the dice with him.

Act 72 is legislation that was passed to accompany the new rules governing the 61,000 slot machines coming to 14 locations in the Commonwealth. Rendell and Democrats in the general assembly are hoping that slot-parlors will generate a billion dollars a year in new revenue. In a weird twist school districts won’t see any actual money until there’s at least $900 million from gaming in the state treasury.

The Governor is betting big that slot machines will really pay off. He expects that by the end of 2007 the state’s gambling revenue will net property owners a discount to the tune of $300 a year on their property taxes.

But the math in Act 72 is somewhat dicey. There are roughly 3.3 million owner-occupied housing units in the state. For all of them to get an average $300 property tax break, if the state gets a third of gambling revenue, they are all going to have to lose about $900 in slot-parlors. It’s hard to imagine the state that’s been described as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Mississippi-in-the-middle throwing that kind of money around. The governor and his aides like to remind people that in the first year there’s at least $650 million in the pot from licensing fees. Fees set at $50 million that are a bargain by Las Vegas, or even Atlantic City, standards.

The only sure thing in Act 72 though is something called the back end referendum. If your local school district decides it wants a piece of the gambling receipts two years down the road, it has to agree now that if it wants to raise property taxes above a state determined index the increase would have to be voted on in a public referendum.

What school directors all over the state know is that teachers’ unions have an absolute right to strike in this state. It’s a sure bet that there isn’t one out of the state’s 501 districts that isn’t coping with dramatically rising health care insurance costs. Many, especially in southeastern and central Pennsylvania, are coping with burgeoning student populations that are forcing capital building costs to all time high levels. School administrators don’t want to risk the wrath of parents when teachers are on strike or their kids have to attend classes in temporary trailers semester after semester.

There isn’t any real good reason not to extend Act 72 for a couple of more years. Someday if gaming really pays off in Pennsylvania homeowners could catch a break. In the meantime the Governor and Democrats in the legislature shouldn’t blame school directors that don’t believe there’s going to be any big jackpot for education from gambling.

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.

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