Editorial | Referendum on Casinos

How dare they?

Pennsylvania gambling officials don't like it one little bit that they're being second-guessed by Philadelphians about their troubling decision to drop two slots casinos on the heavily congested Delaware River waterfront. The officials couldn't care less about city voters' opinions on the subject.

How else do you explain the state Gaming Control Board's unseemly rush to take the issue to the state Supreme Court?

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Making good on a threat, gaming board chairman Tad Decker on Friday filed suit asking the high court to block the May 15 City Charter referendum on restricting casinos.

Decker and the gaming board's six other members contend that they alone have authority to pick the casino locations. That's still an open question, other legal experts say.

The gaming board contends that a delay in bringing slots to the city would put off projected job gains and reduce state funds for property-tax relief. But that's an argument about how to vote in the referendum, not a reason to scrap the ballet question.    

Decker is right about one thing: The stakes are high. If voters approve the charter change, it could force the proposed Foxwoods and SugarHouse casinos off the Delaware River waterfront, or out of the city entirely.

Where does the gaming board, though, get off in calling for a halt to a vote by the people? That's like the croupier scooping up the dice and dashing out of the casino before bettors can see what was rolled.

There's nothing illegitimate about this referendum. Two unanimous votes of City Council placed it on the primary ballot, even to the point of overriding a veto by Mayor Street. Despite a sloppy petition drive, thousands of city residents did add their signatures to a call for the charter vote.

Courts often defer entering into a particular dispute because, as lawyers say, a legal issue is not ripe yet. Here, there has been no vote on a zoning change, so it's premature to challenge the city's authority to make a zoning change.

When the vote's outcome is known, it's a virtual certainty that the seven Supreme Court justices - including Justice Thomas G. Saylor, who just happens to be up for retention election in November - will get the case. That's plenty of time to sort through the legal issues. First, find out what the people want.

Decker et al are so convinced that the referendum is illegal and "provides a false sense of hope" to casino opponents that, they argue, the court must step in now.

Well, the gaming board did such a swell job in issuing the casino licenses that we'll just take their word for it, right? Don't think so.

By pushing to deny citizens their chance to vote, the gaming board risks coming off as high-handed, further antagonizing citizens already uneasy over the likely negative aspects of gambling.

A word of advice to both the Supreme Court and the gaming board: Don't patronize Philadelphians before you know their views on the critically important issue of the casino sites.

Let the people vote.