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

Friday, March 14, 2008
Posted 11:47 PM by

Thy casinos' will be done, thy kingdom come in Slotsylvania?

Will the state's slots parlors get an exception to a proposed statewide indoor smoking ban?FOLLOW UP FRIDAY - Pennsylvania's casinos are likely spending their easily-earned lobbying money right now battling a proposed statewide ban on indoor smoking. But good luck trying to prove it.

The state's online database of lobbying expenditures doesn't allow you to search by the subject of what is being lobbyed for or against.

Nor do the lobbyists have to spell out who they gave gifts to, just their basic purpose and who their clients are. Sometimes, the lobbyists even ignore doing that.

The state's lobbying disclosure law doesn't require immediate disclosure either, just a quarterly expense report if the lobbyist spent more than $2,500. The next reports, covering Jan. 1 to March 31, aren't due until April 30th.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers and other officials don't have to file their annual statements of financial interests - reports spelling out what gifts they've received and what conflicts of interest they've had - until May 1.

By then, the indoor smoking ban debate may be over.

Even an annual report to the General Assembly outlining lobbying activities in 2007 with detailed information on registered principals, lobbying firms and lobbyists has not been posted online for the public to read.

And everyone in Slotsylvania simply shrugs and accepts it.

Is it any wonder Gov. Ed Rendell and state Attorney General Tom Corbett feel safe in refusing to give back denotions from a slots parlor owner who has since been indicted for lying about his mob ties?

Can't anyone in Harrisburg say pay-to-play?

I do know, thanks to my own research, that the casino companies spent at least $2.6 million last year to lobby the Legislature and Rendell's administration.

And I suspect lots of lobbying is going on right now because the slots parlors want a special state exemption from a proposed indoor smoking ban - even as Senate Bill 246 is being re-crafted by a panel of lawmakers as a compromise between competing bills that passed in the House and Senate last year.

Other gambling states such as New Jersey and Connecticut are pondering outright smoking bans in their casinos.

Their reason? Atlantic City baccarat dealer Kam Wong was awarded about $150,000 as disability pay and lost wages last month as worker's compensation - and additional amounts for future medical care - for the lung cancer she developed after 10 years of breathing secondhand smoke at the former Claridge Casino Hotel.

But during testimony before the state House and Senate conference committee on Thursday, casino owners pointed to dips in slot machine revenues at Delaware casinos after that state went smoke-free. Those casinos only recovered after they expanded to 24 hours of operation and added machines.

"The baseline went down 20 percent, and it's taken six years to get back," said David Jonas, president of Philadelphia Park Casino. If that happens here, the Legislature's goal of homeowner property tax cuts would be undermined, he and his industry colleagues said.

State Rep. Mike Gerber, a champion of a law with as few exceptions as possible, countered by accusing casino owners of "asking us to put your profits before the health of your workers and your patrons."

But Jonas also argued, "We understand the health hazards of direct smoking and the concerns expressed about secondhand smoke. A blanket smoking ban on casinos would be a disaster for the industry. ... You cannot burden the casino industry with an unnecessary obstacle to providing the revenue that you need [for property tax relief]."

Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) said the committee will begin its final deliberations at a public meeting scheduled for April 1.

Meanwhile, Quakertown - one of the largest towns in Greenleaf's district - last week became the latest of a growing number of municipalities across the state to locally ban smoking outdoors in their parks. Anyone caught lighting a pipe, cigar or cigarette faces a fine of up to $600 or 30 days in jail.

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