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EDITORIAL - Mixed bag: Separate the good gambling bills from the bad

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Now that Gov. Ed Rendell is putting his chief of staff in charge of the state Gaming Control Board, we hope that means the political muscle the governor flexed to bring legalized gambling to the state will be used to end the stalemates surrounding Philadelphia's two planned casinos.

Greg Fajt of Mt. Lebanon, a former state legislator and revenue secretary, will move from the governor's office to the gaming board after chairwoman Mary DiGiacomo Colins steps down, which is expected soon.

The change comes amid news reports of lavish travel by gaming officials, frustration over the lack of construction on planned SugarHouse and Foxwoods casinos, and dozens of legislative proposals that would affect everything from how board members are selected to who resolves legal disputes.

On top of that, state Sen. Jane Earll wants to withhold from Philadelphia the tax relief that is funded by casino revenue, a proposal that probably has lost its punch because Mr. Rendell does not support it. His spokesman says there has been positive movement on the slow pace of casino development.

We hope that's true. The lack of two casinos in Philadelphia that were supposed to be big money makers means smaller tax savings for all Pennsylvanians. Starting construction and getting those casinos open should be priority No. 1 for the gaming board.

At the same time, some of the bills proposed could mean improvements at the gaming board:

• Under Senate Bill 805, sponsored by Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, anyone with a felony conviction would be banned from getting a license for a slots casino, an improvement over current law, which limits the restriction to convictions that occurred in the past 15 years.

• The state needs to set up procedures for what to do when a license holder defaults. Questions that arose when Detroit developer Don Barden couldn't get financing for Pittsburgh's North Shore casino exposed this hole in the current slots law and SB 809 aims to close it.

• Several measures would transfer the responsibility for investigating licensees from the gaming board to a law enforcement agency, an attempt to do a better job of screening out applicants.

Unfortunately, some of the proposed legislation seems unnecessary or counterproductive.

• Requiring two-thirds confirmation by the Senate for any board appointments, called for under Senate Bill 805, isn't necessary, given that legislative leaders already appoint four of the seven members, with the governor naming the other three.

• Present law, wisely, lets the state Supreme Court take immediate jurisdiction of legal disputes involving casinos, an important provision that streamlines the process. House Bill 805, though, would remove the right to direct appeals, something we fear could exacerbate delays like those in Philadelphia.

• Prohibiting virtual blackjack and roulette machines, as Senate Bill 761 would, goes too far in dictating which slot machines the casino operators can install.

• Requiring monthly win/loss statements to customers enrolled in casino rewards programs might prove eye-opening for some gamblers but it raises this question: Should the state Liquor Control Board similarly send notices to the homes of regular customers detailing how much alcohol they buy each month?

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi has said he thinks all the gambling reform measures could move as a package. But that's too simplistic. It would lump the good with the bad and doom prospects for the changes that are warranted. State lawmakers should do their jobs and consider each proposal on its merits.  

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