Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Tribes In The Media: Legislators May Penalize Philly For Casino Delays

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This installment of The Tribes In The Media is an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer discussing the possibility that Pennsylvania legislators may penalize the city of Philadelphia for delaying the opening of two slot parlors in that city. The Mashantucket Pequot Nation, through its business arm and partners, is seeking to open one of two slot parlors approved for the city.

Urging action on city casinos
By Suzette Parmley
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 25, 2009

A Pennsylvania lawmaker plans to introduce legislation as early as Monday to strip Philadelphia of up to $64 million annually in economic development funds for failing to have its two casinos up and running.

Twenty-seven months of delays on the city's proposed SugarHouse and Foxwoods casinos have left some lawmakers across the state upset that Philadelphia is benefiting unfairly from slots revenue without contributing to the pot.

"The two casinos and Mayor Nutter have to reach agreements and have permits in place and have these casinos built and up and operational," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Wansacz, a Northeastern Pa. Democrat and member of the House Gaming Oversight Committee. "If no progress is made, then the rest of the state could use that $64 million to create jobs and stimulate the economy."

Mayor Nutter said he was hopeful the bill wouldn't be necessary.

At a March 13 City Hall news conference, Nutter said there were "no barriers" to the construction of two casinos at their desired locations. The announcement, along with his statement days earlier that he would like to see the two proposed casinos "get up as quickly as possible," seemed to signal that progress was being made.

"As the mayor made clear in his March 13 press conference, the city is in no way, shape, or form a barrier to casinos in Philadelphia and both operators know that," spokesman Luke Butler said last night. "He has had numerous conversations with Rep. Wansacz.

"The mayor understands his concerns," Butler said, "but is hopeful that by continuing to work with the representative and the casino operators, we can move things along without legislation."

Wansacz's proposal is the latest in what appears to be a growing chorus of complaints, especially among Democrats in Harrisburg, over the casino delays.

Gov. Rendell has championed slot machine gambling and its revenue to meet his twin aims of reducing statewide property taxes and to boost Pennsylvania's horseracing industry.

"There is palpable discontent in the legislature with the slow pace of the Philadelphia casinos," Rendell spokesman, Chuck Ardo, said yesterday.

Wansacz said his proposal wouldn't touch Philadelphia's wage tax relief from slots revenue, but instead, would restrict funds the city is to get from the Gaming Economic Development and Tourism Fund for the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center - a maximum of $64 million annually for debt service and operating expenses.

Wansacz said the funds taken from Philadelphia could be funneled to other economic development projects throughout the state.

The two city casinos have been mired in political and legal delays since they were awarded slots licenses in December 2006. Both have also faced fierce neighborhood opposition.

The operators behind the two city casinos declined to comment on Wansacz's bill.

The group behind the SugarHouse slots parlor asked the state Supreme Court in January to appoint a "special master" to help it deal with Philadelphia officials, whom it accused of stalling its riverfront casino. The court appointed a special master yesterday.

Meanwhile, the operator behind Foxwoods casino, bowing to fierce opposition to its original waterfront site, announced in September that it was open to relocating its proposed $670 million casino to the Gallery at Market East near Chinatown. The group recently acknowledged that it was also considering the old Strawbridge & Clothier building on Market Street.

Wansacz, whose northeastern Pennsylvania district includes parts of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Susquehanna and Wyoming counties, said he has been sitting on the legislation for three months, and that his patience "has grown thin."

His proposal received mixed reaction from groups opposed to the city casinos.

"We support his concept because no one should be entitled to revenues from a corrupt state program based on a regressive tax," said Paul Boni, attorney for Casino-Free Philadelphia, a group dedicated to keeping slot parlors out of Philadelphia.

"What's being debated in Philadelphia is about public process, transparency and the recognition of the dangers of placing a predatory industry smack in the middle of residents, schools and vulnerable business corridors," said Helen Gym of Asian Americans United, a group fighting the Foxwoods casino proposed for Chinatown. "Clearly, though, for the representative, gambling is about the best interests of casino operators - not the best interests of taxpayers."

Wansacz has at least one powerful ally. State Rep. Dante Santoni Jr., (D., Berks), chair of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, said yesterday that he would hold a hearing on the bill if it was introduced.