Stateline Story

Keystone State Voters Betting on Slots

Pennsylvania voters know one thing for sure about the November elections -- expanded gambling is coming to the Keystone State despite the opposition of religious leaders.

Regardless of which major party candidate for governor the voters select Republican GOP Attorney General Michael Fisher or Democratic former Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, they will, in essence, be casting a vote for slot machines.

"This is the first time I can recall that gaming is seriously being considered as a significant source of revenue," says Karen Miller, who heads the Pennsylvania Economy League, an independent, non-partisan public policy research group.

Fisher, the Republican gubernatorial hopeful, would allow slot machines at the state's four race tracks -- Pocono Downs, Wilkes-Barre; Penn National, Harrisburg; Philadelphia Downs, Philadelphia; and The Meadows in western Pennsylvania. Under his plan, they would also be allowed at racetracks under construction in Erie in the western part of the state and in Chester County, west of Philadelphia.

Fisher proposes that tax revenue from the slot machines be used to help pay for programs for the elderly, such as subsidized prescription drugs.

Rendell, the Democratic candidate for the state's top office, also favors slots. He wants to put them at all the racetracks as well, and return the tax revenues to local school districts. Theoretically, this would result in lower and or capped property taxes, benefiting not just seniors on fixed incomes, but all property owners.

Studies sponsored by the gaming industry in Pennsylvania, which currently is limited to only thoroughbred and harness racing, estimate that slot machines could generate as much as $400 million or more in tax revenue annually..

The money could be used to reduce property taxes or retirees' drug bills, and traffic generated by the slots could help save jobs in the horseracing industry, which employs upwards of 35,000 people, the industry says.

Many religious leaders dispute the need for slot machines, but are fighting a losing battle. One recent poll showed Pennsylvania voters favoring slots at racetracks by 56 to 35 percent.

"I don't like the concept of using gambling to fund state-wide programs, such as the education of our children. What message does that communicate to our children? It tells people we are not ready to step up to the plate on matters like eldercare or education. " said the Rev. Karen Scherer, pastor of Jerusalem Lutheran Church in rural Rothsville in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country.

"(Slots) will attract the poor hoping to make it rich quick It will be the ones who can least afford it who will end up funding the programs. Someone has got to lose in order for the state to win," Scherer said.

Terry Madonna, Ph.D., Chair of Government at Millersville University and Director of the Keystone Poll, says Pennsylvania is trying to keep revenue now being lost to its neighbors in-state.

"It is estimated that two-thirds of those that go to casinos and gaming establishments in (surrounding) states are from Pennsylvania," said Madonna. New York has gambling on Native American reservations, and New Jersey has its Atlantic City casinos. Two other neighboring states -- Delaware and West Virginia have slot machines at race tracks

"These are tough budget times. We are always looking for new courses of revenue," said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for the House Majority Leader, Rep. John Perzel, R-Phila.

"Many of the people going to these border states are spending money that could be our money," said Miskin. "We say, let's keep the money here. Let's give them the opportunity to spend the money here."

Tags: Gambling