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Allegheny voters back full-blown casinos

| Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2003

As legislators tussle in Harrisburg over whether to allow eight or 11 slot machine parlors in Pennsylvania, a new poll shows most Allegheny County voters would go even further, allowing full-blown casinos to boost state revenues.

A Pittsburgh Tribune-Review poll of 500 likely voters shows 60 percent said they favor both casino-style gambling on the rivers and slot machine halls at horse racetracks, compared to 5 percent in favor of slots only. Twenty-eight percent of poll respondents said they don't want either form of gambling.

Connie Fontanesi, 53, of Scott Township, said she supports slot machines and casinos even though she's not a gambler.

"I just think it would generate some income in the area, and we are sorely lacking in funding and financing in the area, and jobs," Fontanesi said.

Majority support for expanded gambling holds among Democrat and Republican voters, blacks and whites, men and women, across all age groups and at all income levels, according to the poll, conducted last week by Susquehanna Polling and Research Inc., of Harrisburg.

Support is weakest among registered Republican voters, of whom 38 percent oppose both types of gambling.

Unlike his Democrat and Republican predecessors, Gov. Ed Rendell supports expanding gambling. He sees slot machines as a key source of new revenue, essential to his plan to increase spending on education and early childhood programs while simultaneously reducing property taxes.

Kate Philips, the governor's press secretary, said the poll underscores strong statewide support for more state-regulated gambling.

"The question is whether Pennsylvania should be benefiting from Pennsylvanians gambling, and the answer is yes. For too long, Pennsylvania dollars have been filling other states' treasuries because Pennsylvanians go there to gamble," Philips said.

Racetracks with slot machine parlors, also called "racinos," exist already in West Virginia and Delaware.

Rendell and Republican House Speaker John Perzel have said a 34 percent tax on gross revenues from more than 20,000 new slot machines could bring $1 billion annually into state coffers. Other supporters of legalized slots have used more modest numbers, typically less than half that amount.

Evan Stoddard, president of the Pittsburgh grassroots anti-gambling group No Dice, said if Rendell's revenue projections are to hold up Pennsylvanians will have to put at least six times as much money into state slot machines as they now gamble elsewhere.

"There is a tremendous amount of (gambling industry) money behind the effort to convince Pennsylvanians that gambling is in the public interest. There's no money on the opposite side to give the message to Pennsylvanians about the damage that introducing casino gambling would do," said Stoddard, associate dean of liberal arts at Duquesne University.

Both the state House and Senate passed bills this summer to legalize slot machines at racetracks. But the initiative bogged down over specifics.

The Senate version of the legislation, which would allow slot machines at four existing Pennsylvania racetracks and also at up to four new tracks, passed by the slimmest of margins. Most of the Republican Senate majority is opposed.

The House bill raised the number of allowable slots venues to 11 -- including two slots casinos not at racetracks -- and dropped restrictions from the Senate bill including a ban on gambling industry campaign contributions. When that amended version came back to the Senate, Republicans shelved it.

Even if a compromise bill can be approved and sent to the governor's desk this fall, casino gambling is almost certainly not going to be part of the deal.

Sen. Robert Thompson of Chester County, one of the pivotal six Republicans in his chamber supporting legalized slots, said he rejects any expansion of gambling beyond allowing slot machines at racetracks.

"It's a little bit more difficult to get to a racetrack than to get to downtown casinos, so (restricting new gambling to racetracks) helps salve the conscience of those who think that gaming should not be convenient," Thompson said.

Among those who told pollsters they favored more legalized gambling, 40 percent said the proceeds should be used to cut property taxes, 32 percent preferred the money be used to help put Pittsburgh back on solid financial ground, and 23 percent said funds should be used to improve education. Only 1 percent said the money should be used to finance a new hockey arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The House version of the bill set aside $15 million for David L. Lawrence Convention Center, a Downtown hotel and a new Penguins rink.

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