Columnists > Voices

'Out came this calf'

With piecemeal moves, Philadelphia steps closer to the gambling abyss

Issue: "Barrier riffs," Feb. 10, 2007

The Monday morning locker room in my all-girls high school in the late '60s twittered with the main question about the weekend: "Did you go all the way?"

Philadelphia is itching to go all the way. It's doing it piecemeal, as these things always go, so that when it is finally a fait accompli we will all act surprised and declare that it was no one's fault but just the ineluctable force of events. When Aaron was minding the store for 40 days, his sheepish defense for the orgy Moses saw upon descending from Sinai was that the people had tossed their baubles into the flame-and "out came this calf."

Governor Ed Rendell is minding the store for another four years in Pennsylvania. He has presided over the lucrative Pennsylvania Lottery, and his administration has seen the introduction of gambling as economic policy, with a 2004 bill allowing 14 slot venues throughout the state. Under the radar of less alert citizenry, the governor recently signed a bill permitting unlimited liquor to be served in these establishments, the better to lubricate the wheels of fortune.

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(A columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, noting Rendell's comment during the gubernatorial race that gambling offers "brightness and cheer" to older Pennsylvanians who "lead very gray lives," asks, "Why stop with slots and free drinks? . . . government might consider providing crystal meth, amphetamines or other stimulants, all sporting an excellent cost-to-profit ratio.")

Oily men in suits are trying to tempt Rendell to take it to the next level, with visions of table games and craps, which the governor has thus far declined, but in a manner not unlike Julius Caesar's thrice declining the crown, that is, each time less forcefully than the last (Shakespeare's Julius Caesar). Quoth the governor: "Probably not on my watch." Have any fifth-grader circle the operative word in that sentence.

"Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, 'Who sees us? Who knows us?'" (Isaiah 29:15). Here is how bills are made when you are a little bit ashamed of what you approve of (Romans 14:22)-but you want to make sure you get it:

It was the 4th of July in 2005 and a weekend besides. It was a little 33-line bill having to do with background checks for racetrack workers, and it was up for consideration for the third time, having been in the Harrisburg House of Representatives for 47 days with no amendments and the Senate for 100 days with no amendments. The trick: to delete the original 33 lines and replace it with 144 pages calling for 14 slot machine venues. Sneak it through on a holiday weekend without public scrutiny and public input.

"Out came this calf": seven parlors at the race tracks, one in Pittsburgh, two in Philadelphia, and two in other locations in the state.

Casino Free Philadelphia and other anti-gambling groups have filed a suit with the state Supreme Court against the Gaming Act, complaining that the biggest change to the Birthplace of America in history is being made not by the legislature but by the seven unelected appointees known as the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, who stonewalled for months the release of impact reports filed by casino applicants.

But don't worry, be happy. Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia and SugarHouse Gaming have magnanimously announced that they will donate portions of their profits to as yet unspecified charities. A Foxwoods attorney crowed about his clients, "Their motives in doing this are earnest-knowing that gambling is coming to Philadelphia . . . they wanted to truly do something good for the city." (Is it me, or is there some strange hint of moral discomfort and atonement in that quote?)

Meanwhile, it just so happens that on the same day Philadelphia was awarding licenses to Foxwoods and SugarHouse, the Parliament of Russia (not on everybody's "top 10" list of Most Ethical Nations) approved legislation to outlaw gambling in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and literally to banish it to a remote part of Siberia. (Ever heard of the taiga, the sub-Arctic forest?)

And we haven't even talked about the traffic problems yet.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.

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