The two panelists at a Temple University debate on Pennsylvania’s proposed slot machine legislation agreed on one thing last Thursday: The state is betting its future on legalized gambling.
Attorney Bob Rovner, Governor Ed Rendell’s appointee to Temple’s board of trustees, said the payoff for legalizing slot machines at horse racetracks will be billions of dollars for education and other state programs.
But Bill Kearney, a former gambling addict, said it is not worth the cost in destroyed finances, families, businesses and lives.
Kearney made millions in the wholesale business in the late 1970s, but lost his fortune, his home and his family to gambling in Atlantic City during the 1980s.
“I am a veteran and a victim of the first casino industry expansion outside of Las Vegas,” he said. “Life didn’t deal me a bad break, the casinos did.”
Rovner agreed that gambling was not a good investment.
“I’m not here to advocate gambling,” he said. “Don’t gamble.”
However, he said Pennsylvania’s neighboring states, with the exception of Ohio, allow gambling in one form or another, from slots to full casinos in Atlantic City and on Indian reservations.
“If [people are] going to gamble, why have them go to West Virginia, Delaware or New Jersey?” he said. “Revenue from slot machines is an idea whose time has come [in Pennsylvania].”
Rovner is no stranger to legalized gambling. As a freshman state senator in 1971, he sponsored the bill that created the Pennsylvania Lottery.
He said the $800 million annual revenue from the state lottery is a “happy tax” that people want to pay. Revenue from slots will help fund education and close the state budget deficit.
Both the Pennsylvania House and Senate are currently debating gambling bills. The bills in both houses provide for slot machines at the four existing horse racetracks in the state, as well as slots at four new tracks, one of which is being planned for the old Philadelphia Navy Yard in South Philadelphia.
The current House bill also has three additional locations for slots: one in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and a third that has yet to be determined.
The House bill weakened regulatory provisions that were in the Senate version, such as banning campaign contributions from slot owners, according to Gary Tuma, the spokesman for state Sen. Vincent Fumo (D-Philadelphia).
For Kearney, the issue is not regulation of gambling interests, but rather it is the effect gambling has on people. His own experience with gambling cost him his marriage in addition to a successful drapery business in Northeast Philadelphia.
“I was living my dream, [but] some dreams turn into nightmares,” he said. “[Gambling] destroys not only gamblers, but families, friends and businesses.”
He wrote a novel, “Comped,” based on his experience. The title is a reference to the practice of offering complimentary perks to big gamblers, such as free meals, hotel rooms and limo rides.
“More people get their addiction from chasing the comps [than from gambling],” he said.
Gambling would bring a lot of money into the state, Kearney said, but it isn’t worth it.
“The [gambling] industry is going to make not millions, but billions. I know that money comes from your pocket, your parents’ pockets and your grandparents’ pockets,” he said. “They are going to take your soul.”
Geography major Greg Dean said legalized slots was a shortsighted solution to the state’s budget problems. He said he worried that slots would be a “foot-in-the-door” for full casinos in the city.
Urban Studies professor Alan Hornblum, who organized the debate for his race class and gender discrimination class, said he was pleased that the debate sparked a lot of questions from his students. Last week, about half of his students were in favor of legalized gambling in the state, he said, but the questions from his students showed many had become concerned about gambling’s effects.
“Obviously Kearney’s dire predictions and his own experiences had an impact,” Hornblum said.
Brian White can be reached at email@example.com.