Pa. high court declines to speed up its ruling on city slots referendum

A Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision yesterday declining to speed up a final ruling on an anti-slots ballot question may have effectively ended any chance of putting the issue before Philadelphia voters on May 15, anti-slots organizers said.

City Council's lawyer was more optimistic, saying the court still could make the referendum happen - provided it first lifted its earlier preliminary injunction banning the ballot measure.

Yesterday's decision came two weeks after the court had issued that injunction, and set tomorrow as the deadline for filing written arguments in advance of a final decision.

Council warned that such a schedule would automatically prevent the question from getting onto the ballot because of a requirement that the referendum be publicly advertised starting three weeks in advance of a vote.

The latest the first ad can appear is tomorrow.

Council had asked the court to modify its injunction to speed up its schedule, or alternatively, allow the city to proceed with advertising of the ballot question, which would be harmless if it never appeared before voters May 15.

Yesterday, in a one-page order that offered no reasoning, the court refused to revise its original order.

"We may have lost," said City Councilman Frank DiCicco, the referendum's chief sponsor on Council. "It appears to me that the Supreme Court will continue to impose a gag order on the the City of Philadelphia."

Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia and SugarHouse Casino, each awarded a license by the state to build a slots parlor along the Delaware River, supported the injunction to prevent the ballot question, which asks voters to banish casinos to industrial areas.

Anti-casino activists and neighbors of the sites chosen by Foxwoods, in South Philadelphia, and SugarHouse, in Fishtown, complained they had no real input on the decision to choose those slots operators over three competitors.

The lawyer whom Council hired to fight the injunction, Maurice Mitts, said the court had the power to modify the advertising schedule, so that if it overturned the preliminary injunction it could issue an opinion next week and set out a new advertising schedule that would allow the referendum to go forward.

"While the established deadlines are now impossible to meet, the court has the ability to alter publication deadlines," Mitts said.

He said he would ask the court to do just that when he submitted Council's final briefs tomorrow.

Casino-Free Philadelphia, the creator of the referendum proposal, did not expect the court to suddenly rule in its favor.

"It's indicative of a real inflexibility on the part of the Supreme Court and a real hostility toward the people of Philadelphia," Daniel Hunter, Casino-Free Philadelphia coordinator, said last night. Although the preliminary injunction was a sign that the court was likely to rule against Council, referendum supporters have held out hope for a ruling in their favor. The court has not indicated whether it will rule before May 15.

The question asks whether casinos should be built within 1,500 feet of homes, schools or houses of worship.

If put on the ballot and passed, the referendum would nullify the state Gaming Control Board's Dec. 20 decision to license Foxwoods and SugarHouse. The board and casinos argued that the restrictions would effectively ban slots in Philadelphia, and foil the state's plan to fund $1 billion in property- and wage-tax relief using slots revenue.

The fight to stop casinos is likely to continue regardless of what happens to the referendum.

The Supreme Court still has before it five appeals to the Gaming Control Board's licensing decisions for Philadelphia.

If successful, those appeals would reopen the competition for Philadelphia's two licenses. DiCicco has proposed several ordinances that would restrict casino development, and the city would have to approve zoning changes to allow for the Foxwoods and SugarHouse casinos to be built on their chosen sites.

Slots casinos were legalized in Pennsylvania in 2004 largely as a way to generate revenue for property-tax reduction. Two Philadelphia casinos, with up to 5,000 slot machines each, are counted on to produce an estimated 20 percent of the state's hoped-for $1 billion in tax relief. Licenses were authorized for 12 other slots sites around the state.


Read coverage of slots in Pennsylvania, including the gaming board's lawsuit and the court's decision, at http://go.philly.com/slots


Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 610-313-8173 or jshields@phillynews.com.