Public loses if 'competing' casinos can have same principal owners

A principal owner of the Parx Casino in Bensalem wants a bigger stake in a new casino planned for South Philadelphia.

A bill that would ditch part of Pennsylvania’s gambling law that puts limits on multiple ownership of slots parlors is the latest sign that lawmakers looking for revenue are putting the casino industry’s interests above the public’s.

The legislation is part of an effort to clear the way for Stadium Casino LLC to build a casino in South Philadelphia. One investor is Watche “Bob” Manoukian, who also owns 85 percent of Parx Casino in Bensalem.

State law says the majority owner of one casino can’t own more than one-third of a second casino. But State Rep. Scott Petri (R., Bucks), chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, has introduced a bill that would remove the ownership restriction, which he says is “archaic” and no longer “makes sense.”

The Stadium Casino project has been tied up in court for three years by litigation filed by SugarHouse Casino on Delaware Avenue and Market East Associates, which bid on the casino license that instead went to Stadium Casino.

The state Supreme Court in June ordered the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which approved the project, to reconsider whether granting Stadium Casino a license would violate the multiple ownership rule that Petri wants to abandon. If he succeeds, the gaming board’s ruling, if it ever makes a ruling, won’t matter.

The law that legalized slot machines was passed in 2004 and the first casino opened in 2006. How did the provision become “archaic” in little more than a decade?

If anything, the gambling law should be strengthened to prohibit casino owners from having any interest in a supposedly competing casino. Competition is important in a state where the casino industry already operates like an oligopoly.

Look no farther than Atlantic City, where Donald Trump once owned three casinos, to see what could happen. Trump’s casino expansion in South Jersey was fueled with debt he couldn’t handle, which ultimately led to four corporate bankruptcies in the 1990s and 2000s.

The casino industry already wields outsized influence on lawmakers. Several casino licenses were awarded to politically connected insiders. Enabling casino owners to own multiple properties will only enhance their influence.

The state’s law initially legalized only slot machines, but was later amended to include full-blown casinos with table games. In June, the House passed sweeping legislation that would allow casino-style gambling in bars and airports.

More gambling and fewer restrictions is a losing bet. Pennsylvania had good reasons to limit casino ownership when the law was written; those reasons haven’t changed. Petri hasn’t made the case for changing the law. His bill would only enable a current casino owner to add to his already considerable wealth and power.