By Matt Blanchard
City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to put a casino referendum on the May 15 primary ballot. If approved by voters, the measure would amend the city charter and could bar any casino from locating within 1,500 feet of any residential neighborhood.
That requirement would effectively banish the Foxwoods casino from its site on the South Philadelphia waterfront and stop the SugarHouse casino from developing its proposed location in Fishtown.
Indeed, if voters approve the measure, initial calculations suggest casinos would be restricted to only a handful of sites, including a corner of the Navy Yard, a spot beneath the Betsy Ross Bridge, and the airport.
“This is a matter that will affect the City of Philadelphia for decades to come,” Councilman Frank DiCicco said as he urged his colleagues to support the ballot measure. “[The referendum] may be voted up. It may be voted down. But we are the last line of defense. We shouldn’t take the position to silence the people of Philadelphia, as state lawmakers did.”
Both proposed casinos are sited in DiCicco’s district.
The council vote also brought swift reaction from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which gave SugarHouse and Foxwoods approval in December to build along the Delaware River.
Tad Decker, the gaming board’s chairman, said the agency will challenge the legality of the ballot question since it contradicts the state law that legalized slot machines and authorized two casinos in Philadelphia.
“It’s clearly a violation of the gaming act,” Decker told reporters after the board’s public meeting in Harrisburg. “They’re not allowed to pass it.”
The agency likely will ask the state Supreme Court to take the case and prevent the Philadelphia city clerk from authorizing the question for the ballot, Decker said.
The 17-0 vote was the result of hard campaigning by anti-casino activists, who raised 27,000 petition signatures in support of the measure.
“This is the culmination of the work of thousands of residents across the city. We’ve been working for over a year to get our voices heard,” said Anne Dicker of Casino Free Philadelphia. “Today, city council unanimously gave us the right to vote. Today we feel jubilant, absolutely jubilant.”
Also pushing for the measure was the longshoreman’s union, worried that casino traffic will strangle port operations, which they argue can create 130,000 new jobs through expansion in the coming years.
“The congestion casinos create on our active port facilities will be the demise of our industry,” said Jim Paylor, vice president of the International Longshoremen’s Association. “The vote today will slow down the process, and give everyone a chance to look at this thing in detail.”
Both groups packed council chambers yesterday, waving signs that read: “No Casino Here” and “What would Billy Penn Think?” At the vote, they erupted into applause and let out shouts of “Thank you!”
Opposing the measure were members of the building trades and supporters of Sugarhouse Casino, armed with placards reading “Sugarhouse Now.” After the vote, Sugarhouse spokesman Dan Fee reminded reporters that the original casino legislation received broad support among legislators in Harrisburg, and that Ed Rendell won a landslide victory in the 2002 governor’s race, promising to bring slot gambling to the state to fund education and tax relief.
“Every single member of the Philadelphia delegation voted for [casinos]. Ed Rendell was reelected even after he said two casinos were going to Philadelphia, and everyone knew who the applicants were,” Fee said. “Make no mistake, the vote today was a vote against tax cuts, against jobs for people who live and work in Philadelphia, and it was a vote against additional funding for our schools.”
Despite Thursday’s vote, the anti-casino movement faces several obstacles.
The first obstacle is the Street administration, which supports casino gambling. City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. has suggested that the anti-casino measure conflicts with state law, and could be struck down by the second obstacle, State Supreme Court, where many feel a casino fight is inevitable.
A constitutional law professor at Temple University said the case would set up an interesting clash between the slots law and Philadelphia’s home rule authority under the state constitution.
The state Supreme Court has tended to side with the Legislature on other home rule issues, such as gun laws, said professor David Kairys.
“You can only make predictions, there’s no certain answer to this,” Kairys said. “But I would say that the way the Supreme Court has been going, it would probably rule against the interests in the city that want to limit gambling, or eliminate it.”
A third obstacle is the May 15 primary vote itself. Will the voters ban casinos? Casino-Free Philadelphia activists say they are preparing public education campaign to counter any public relations effort by the casinos.
Activists believe they have public opinion on their side. A poll of 500 residents commissioned by Casino Free Philadelphia suggests that 79 percent of Philadelphia voters support prohibiting casinos within 1,500 feet of residential communities, schools, playgrounds, and places of worship.
The Associated Press contributed to this story