The state Gaming Control Board sued the city yesterday, asking the state Supreme Court to strip from the May 15 ballot a referendum that would allow local voters to decide where casinos can be built here.
Tad Decker, board chairman, has said the referendum illegally conflicts with the state law that gives his agency control over casino locations. The ballot question asks voters if they want to ban casinos from being constructed within 1,500 feet of homes, churches, schools, parks and other public spaces.
If passed, that would negate the board's December decision to approve two casinos on the Delaware riverfront - SugarHouse in Fishtown and Foxwoods in South Philly.
"We cannot sit idly by and must take this action now because placing this question on the ballot is a waste of time and taxpayer dollars," Decker said in a statement that pointed out that the state would lose $140 million in taxes for every six months the opening of those two casinos is delayed.
Councilman Frank DiCicco yesterday said the lawsuit amounts to an attempted "gag order" on voters.
DiCicco, who introduced the legislation to create the referendum, predicted the Gaming Control Board will see a backlash from people who might have supported casinos in the city.
"They must be worried. Why else would you do it? You just create more anger and frustration," DiCicco said. "The more you try to tell people that they don't count, I think the more resistance you get."
City Solicitor Romulo Diaz yesterday agreed with the Gaming Control Board that the referendum needlessly endangers tax revenue for the city and new jobs to build and staff casinos.
"My position has always been clear that the ballot question is illegal," Diaz said.
Mayor Street last week vetoed the legislation putting the referendum on the ballot, but City Council, under tremendous political pressure from anti-gaming activists and neighborhood groups near the proposed casinos, overrode the veto unanimously.
The board's lawsuit suggests that Council, while passing legislation last fall to allow the creation of "Commercial Entertainment Districts" for proposed casinos, acknowledged that the board had control about where they would be built. The suit also charges:
_ The referendum would restrict gaming in the city because there are so few places that are 1,500 feet from homes and public spaces.
_ Previous court rulings have found that zoning can't be changed by referendums.
_ The city did not provide sufficient public notice for hearings on the referendum, which was supported by a petition drive that a judge later ruled was invalid. The suit takes aim at the group that circulated the petitions, Casino-Free Philadelphia, calling it an "activist group zealously opposed" to casinos here.
Daniel Hunter, a spokesman for the group, fired back yesterday, asking why the board needed the Supreme Court to strike down a referendum if it thinks the vote will ultimately be unenforceable?
"The fact of the matter is our right to vote is under attack by an out-of-control board," he said. "It's an affront to democracy." *