By Kellie Patrick Gates
If the state brings table games (in addition to slots) to some Philadelphia neighborhoods, a portion of the revenue generated should stay in those neighborhoods and not be directed into the city’s general fund, said several state legislators and a city councilman during a press conference Tuesday.
State senators Larry Farnese and Curtis Thomas, representatives Babette Josephs and Mike O’Brien, and City Councilman Bill Green all spoke in favor of a provision included in the latest version of Senate Bill 711 to pass the Senate, which calls for the proceeds of a 2 percent tax on table games to be split between the city’s general fund and a grant program for non-profits located within 1.5 miles of each casino.
The bill will go to the House when the session resumes Jan. 5. O’Brien guessed that the House would amend the bill in committee before passing it, which would send it back to the Senate for reconciliation. Should the proposal become law, it would not impact the 4 percent in slots revenue that goes to the city’s general fund, Farnese said. Nor would it take away the casinos’ community benefits obligations, said O’Brien.
Thomas called passing the local share provision “the right thing to do” because of the impacts gaming would have on communities. Josephs called it “a moral imperative” since state government is “making a harm” to neighborhoods with casinos.
City Councilman Green said if the entire 2 percent tax went into the city’s general fund, the communities where casinos are located “will suffer an even greater harm than they are suffering from the presence of these casinos.”
But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to split the table games tax 50-50.
“The Mayor believes that those funds should come directly to the City’s general fund,” said Doug Oliver, spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, because casinos are going to create additional expenses for the city.
Jethro Heiko, co-founder of Casino-Free Philadelphia, said what the legislators are arguing about is totally beside the point if they really want to help communities where casinos will operate. He suggested they amend other portions of SB 711.
“This broken bill would allow casinos to offer credit to slots players and would weaken the penalties against casinos for violating liquor laws,” Heiko wrote in an email. “It’s amazing that these legislators can mobilize only to devise ways to spread money around in an effort to ingratiate themselves to voters. Why don’t they try and reform the bill and actual prevent some of the harm?”
Should the proposal be part of the final bill passed by both houses of the legislature, community grants would be administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development. While the elected officials said the casino communities deserve the money because they will have to put up with increased traffic, crime and other detrimental impacts, grants would not be limited to programs that directly tied to such problems, they said.
O’Brien said after the press conference that it was too early to get into exactly how the grants would be awarded, but that the process would be transparent.
To Ed Kirlin, one of the founders of the Pennsport Civic Association, the problem is that any community within the 1.5 mile radius would have equal opportunity to get grant money. “The legislators are on the right track but the distribution of any dollars should be weighted in proportion to a community’s proximity to the harms the casinos create,” he said in an email. “Pennsport will suffer the full brunt of Foxwoods impacts but will only receive a fraction of the dollars for damages.”
While the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association does not have an official position, NLNA President Matt Ruben feels that the city and state have not done nearly enough to consider the impacts of casinos on the adjacent communities.
“Dealing with these impacts will take tens of millions of dollars, and given that no significant funds have been earmarked for that, a dedicated community share of table-game tax revenue would be a good start,” he said. “So I support the legislators who are urging that some table game tax revenue be directed to local communities.”
Meanwhile, the Associated Press is reporting that Gov. Ed Rendell said today he’s confident the two houses will agree on a bill prior to Jan. 8, and if they don’t, he will have to lay off at least 1,000 state employees, close state parks and cut grants to museums, universities and hospitals.
The state projects the table games bill, if passed, would generate enough state revenue to avoid these cuts.
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