Rendell hedges his big bet

Now that full-blown casinos are legal in Pennsylvania, Gov. Rendell is finally voicing second thoughts.

What timing!

Gov. Rendell at a news conference after signing a bill that allows table games at casinos. (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press)

Rendell is the reason casinos are in Pennsylvania. This was his brainchild. He led the fight to legalize gaming, approved in 2004.

Gambling will be part of Rendell’s lasting legacy as governor, in much the same way that the founders of Las Vegas will be forever tied to "Sin City."

But only after signing the bill that allows table games in the burgeoning slots parlors did Rendell express his reservations about gambling last week.

Now the governor says he has “misgivings” about using sin taxes to help fund the state budget. He would prefer to raise the personal income tax, which he will likely try to do again this year.

Rendell also complained that the gaming bill is “laden with pork.” And he opposes the special exception that will allow smoking in the two proposed Philadelphia casinos.

If the governor had concerns with the bill, it would have helped for him to speak out a little sooner.

To be sure, this bill began as an effort to reform the flawed gaming law that Rendell backed in 2004. The new legislation was labeled SB 711, but those letters could have easily been reversed to better reflect the mess that will surely follow gambling.

In place of providing much needed reform, SB 711 morphed into a sweeping expansion of gambling that enables slots parlors to offer blackjack, poker, roulette, and other ways to lose money.

The gaming expansion was done in the name of filling depleted state coffers. While there may be a quick boost in tax revenues, more gambling in Pennsylvania will also produce more losers and societal ills.

Studies show that cities and states with casinos also have higher rates of personal bankruptcy, divorce, alcoholism, suicide, and crime.

The real winners in this bill are the casino owners, many of whom have donated lavishly to the campaigns of Rendell and other key state lawmakers over the years.

In fact, SB 711 basically gave away to the slots operators the right to offer table games. The license fee of $16.5 million likely will be recouped by casino operators within a week or two. Talk about a sure bet for the casinos.

SB 711 also bends over backward to allow the proposed Foxwoods casino in Philadelphia another two years to open. Foxwoods has missed previous deadlines to open since getting its license in 2006. Its investors include several major donors to Rendell, including developer Ron Rubin, New Jersey businessman Lewis Katz, and Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider.

SB 711 also earmarks a percentage of the gaming-tax revenue to specific schools, hospitals, and other organizations with ties to other elected officials. This is the pork that Rendell doesn’t like — but with his track record the grousing doesn’t sound sincere.

SB 711 also lets casinos extend credit to gamblers, a predatory-lending practice that will enable problem gamblers a quick and easy way to go even deeper into debt.

Another questionable feature of SB 711 is its designation of gaming board employees as essential workers, ensuring they stay on the job no matter what. Meanwhile, state parks are cutting staff.

Now that the gaming die has been cast, Rendell seems to be having trouble sleeping. Not to worry, Ed, the casinos are open all night.