"What's black and white and read all over?"

Sunday, April 02, 2006
Posted 9:55 PM by

Pa. groups opposing slots see die as cast

Slots machines are the new NIMBYs, but few groups in opposition to slots parlors are questioning the legality of the law that legalized them or how it was passed.A bunch of groups plan to testify this week and over the next month against proposed slots parlors in their communities, but most seem resigned to the fact that 61,000 coin and soul sucking machines are on the way.

They just don't want any of them, or the social ills and blight that gambling is sure to bring, in their backyards.

My question is why not fight the whole idea?

Much like the unpopular and now-repealed pay raise, I believe the law legalizing slots in 14 parlors across the state was passed illegally.

The slots vote occurred in the early morning of July 2, 2004, before both the House and Senate adjourned for the July 4th holiday. The 146-page bill was slid into an unrelated two-paragraph measure about background checks for harness racing track employees, then brought to the floor for a vote without any public debate.

Article 3 of the state Constitution requires that any measure to be voted on must get three days airing in the house and the senate, which the slots law clearly did not.

Yet, no group challenged the law in court. So, the Legislative leaders felt they could get away with it again a year later to give themselves, the state's executive branch and the judiciary pay raises. They even began to take the extra cash within their term, in clear violation of the law.

The state-wide uproar the pay hike engendered forced lawmakers to repeal it and now many incumbents face challengers in the primary, some for the first time in years.

Yet, little outcry has been heard so far about the slot machines.

In 1995, good government group Common Cause sued when the Legislature similarly tried to slip a bill into another in order to take over the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. The state Supreme Court eventually ruled in the group's favor, finding that in cases where an amendment eats a bill, the two must be related.

Common Cause isn't suing over slots law. Instead it's focusing energy on fighting a federal lawsuit it filed stemming from the already-repealed pay hike.

Another group, Casino Free Pa., is taking up the mantle, though, and has filed a petition with the state Supreme Court that makes the same argument Commmon Cause won with a decade ago.

(CORRECTION: 10 P.M., TUESDAY, APRIL 4 - I talked with Diane Berlin, CasinoFreePA's coordinator, tonight and she says the group initially filed a lawsuit but lost and did not appeal. She promised to e-mail me a copy of the decision. Her group's petition is just that, a petition, and may not carry any weight with the high court. So it appears no one is actually suing to overturn the slots law even as the second anniversary of its passage approaches on July 2. Berlin seemed surprised when I told her that under Pa. civil law, most injured parties have only two years to file a lawsuit or the case can be dismissed without being heard.)

My personal argument would be that the legislators violated the state's Sunshine Law by discussing the slot machine bill in secret caucuses before voting on it. The law says says all governing bodies in Pennsylvania must debate the public's business in full view of the public.

However, the Legislature, which enacted the Sunshine Law, is the only governing body in the state exempt from that law - a loophole that should be remedied immediately.
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