Pa. House approves plans for slots at tracks, casinos

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania's House of Representatives approved proposals early yesterday that would allow slot machines at 11 locations and use the revenues to fund a $1 billion effort to lower property taxes.

The slots measure, which calls for 3,000 machines at each of nine racetracks and at two slots-only casinos in Philadelphia and in Pittsburgh, was passed on a 120-81 vote after a marathon debate that began Friday. With the funding secure, the property tax reforms were approved nearly unanimously.

"I think we're all enthralled," said House Democratic leader H. William DeWeese. "This wasn't an achingly narrow victory. This was a monumental, colossal victory."

Both measures go to the state Senate, where the property tax plan is expected to be warmly embraced, but the gambling measure faces strong opposition.

The 12-hour House debate on slots was an echo of the early 1970s war in which the state lottery was born.

Gambling opponents then, and now, predicted the imminent corruption of Pennsylvania's morals.

Republican state Rep. Sam Rohrer called the slot machine bill "one of the most significantly damaging pieces of legislation that has ever been foisted on the people of Pennsylvania."

The chief slots opponent, Republican Rep. Paul Clymer, predicted a future in which hordes of gambling addicts will cause crime, destroy their families and sell the "clothing off their children's back" to feed their habit.

Supporters said slot machines would save an ailing horse racing industry and make Pennsylvania competitive with nearby states that allow slot machines while providing enough new tax revenues to lower property taxes.

"We need to tap that new revenue to prevent people from being forced out of their homes because they can't afford skyrocketing tax bills," said Democratic Rep. T.J. Rooney. "Yet some of my colleagues insist that we can't allow slot machines into our state. It just doesn't make sense."

Democrats, allied with a bloc of moderate Republicans corralled by Speaker of the House John Perzel, beat back amendment after amendment designed to further hurt the slot machine bill's chances in the Senate.

Several amendments were designed to make slot machine licenses at nine racetracks in the state too expensive for track owners - $300 million or more each, as opposed to the $50 million fee proposed.

Another amendment would have prevented the creation of racetracks without the approval of local voters. Other amendments were meant to create additional slot machine venues, in the hopes that senators would balk at allowing too much gambling in the state.

The struggle was all about finding a way to pay for $1 billion in local property tax reductions, the cornerstone of the governor's ambitious reform agenda, and to do it without having to vote for a tax increase.

"There's not been any issue more important in my district than property tax relief," said Democratic Rep. Jennifer Mann. "I give the governor credit for forcing the issue."

Gov. Edward G. Rendell, who has maneuvered for months to compel lawmakers into voting, issued a statement saying he was grateful for passage of both measures. "We could not offer this property tax relief without the substantial proceeds anticipated from legalization of slot machines," he said.

The property tax bill, if approved by the Senate, would work like this:

School districts would raise their income taxes by 0.1 percent. The extra revenue, about $200 million statewide, would be used for dollar-for-dollar reductions to property taxes. The state then would match each local dollar of property tax cuts with from $2 to $17 in state money. The poorer the district, the more state money it would receive.

This would solve a long-standing disparity in public education funding, in that richer school districts can afford to spend more on schools than poor districts. In the Lehigh Valley, the plan would mean an average tax cut ranging from 31 percent for the Allentown School District to 18 percent for the Bethlehem Area School District.

"Everybody is on board for the property tax cut," Perzel said. "There's only one way to get there, and that's gambling. You can't have one without the other. There's no waltzing on this."

The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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