|Philadelphia Daily NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Business News |
Dec. 1--YESTERDAY, Gov. Rendell unwittingly undermined one of his own laws, and possibly every school child in the city. That's because yesterday he signed a bill that would allow casinos to serve unlimited free drinks to patrons.
The law of his that he undermined was the city's 1994 liquor-by-the-drink tax, a then-hotly contested solution for finding money for the schools that nonetheless passed and got then-Mayor Rendell's quick signature.
In fiscal year 2006, that tax generated $37.5 million for city schools
What do you think that tax will generate if two casinos in the city start pouring their customers free drinks? Rendell can't have been thinking of that when he signed that bill yesterday.
But we were.
In light of this newest law, we have to question the apparent largesse of the state when it announced last month that it was going to direct the first $5 million in casino revenues to the school district. Now we have to wonder if that will make up for what the schools might lose if the liquor-by-the-drink tax revenue declines?
The ultimate effect of the free liquor bill is disturbing enough -- at worst case, it's like a crack dealer offering free side dishes of heroin.
It should be pointed out that the bill doesn't require the casinos to give out free drinks, it only allows them to, without having to keep track of how many free drinks a customer gets.
Most upsetting, though, is the way this bill came down: Like the original gaming legislation, it was voted on in the middle of the night, right before the General Assembly broke for a holiday. There was no public hearing, no public discussion, and an utter disregard for the effects of such a bill on the city hosting two slots parlors.
Had there been hearings on the free liquor bill, Philadelphia bar and restaurant owners might have had a chance to point out that because Philadelphia is a big city with a huge stake in tourism, dining and entertainment dollars, we are particularly vulnerable to the effects of such a bill; more so, anyway, than more isolated locations of tracks and slots resorts throughout the state.
In fact, most of the casino applicants we contacted were unaware that this bill was moving so quickly. Many of them suggested that the state's cut of the slots revenue is so big that casinos probably won't be able to afford to hand out many free drinks. The free-drinks-to-slots customers runs counter to the prevailing industry trends of plying free booze only to the high rollers playing table games like poker and blackjack.
But that, too is likely to change. State Rep. William DeWeese, D-Greene, supports expanded gaming to include table games, and is going to draft a bill that allows this. His office says this is not likely to happen very soon, but speed is not the issue.
What is at issue is Harrisburg lawmakers who are either too arrogant or too cowardly to make decisions and laws in the light of day, after a full public hearing. Why do they keep doing it? The recent protracted battle over restoring the city's zoning authority over casinos could have gone more smoothly if there had been more up-front discussion. Casino bills should have public hearings.
We'll repeat that for effect: Casino bills should have public hearings.
Copyright (c) 2006, Philadelphia Daily News
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