When Philadelphia anti-gambling activist Bill Kearney began talking about hurting casinos where they live, few people paid much attention.
The recovering compulsive gambler's plan was simple ... for state legislators to require casino owners to send monthly statements to gamblers, adding up their winnings and, more importantly, their losses. Perhaps then, Kearney began arguing earlier this year, gamblers may realize that complimentary buffets and hotel rooms cost more than they thought.
Few people believed Kearney's proposal would get very far. But the entire country could take notice this week if the proposal ... which is being spearheaded in the state Senate by Rob Wonderling (R-Montgomery County) ... comes to a vote, as it is expected to do.
Numerous flaws have been cited to the 2004 law legalizing slots parlors in Pennsylvania, and the legislature is slated to debate proposed changes to the measure. So far, two good-government reforms have received most of the attention: a ban on public officials owning any percentage of a casino, and a measure proposed by state Sen. Jane Orie (R-North Hills) eliminating slot-machine middlemen and distributors. Neither of these changes, however, may have as much impact on the individual gambler as seeing a win/loss statement.
"The kinds of regulations that people seem concerned about won't save people from losing their homes and their lives to gambling addictions," Kearney says. "Believe me, this will."
State Rep. Paul Clymer (R-Bucks County) has backed monthly-statement legislation in the House since Kearney approached him earlier this year. Clymer's version of the bill, however, has been stuck in committee. Clymer says Wonderling will try to attach the measure to gambling-law changes proposed in the Senate this week; that would be the best chance for getting an up-or-down vote in the House, he says.
Professor I. Nelson Rose, who teaches gambling law at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., says Kearney's measure could be a new phenomenon. He notes that gambling opponents have succeeded with other tacks, such as removing ATM machines from the gambling floor in some states. But Kearney's approach may have some drawbacks, he warns.
"One problem I see with this," says Rose, "is if you send a compulsive gambler a statement showing his monthly losses, you're going to make him say, 'Oh my God, I'm down this much, I need to gamble more to make up for it.'
"If this passes in Pennsylvania and other states soon follow suit, I think it creates a real privacy issue," he adds. "You can enact these restrictions to try and help the problem gambler, but what about the impact on the privacy of the 97 to 99 percent of gamblers who don't have a problem" ... but whose gambling records may fall into the hands of family or strangers?
Kearney says his aim is only to help those who stand to lose everything if their gambling gets out of control. The key is to put regulations in place before the casinos are built, he contends: "Once they get the license, it's too late to make them do anything."
Monthly-statement legislation would force the gambling industry to be more diligent in singling out problem gamblers, Kearney says.
"These monthly statements would be an acknowledgment that they know what's going on when a person loses hundreds of thousands of dollars," he adds. "That could open up a new cottage industry of litigation and class-action lawsuits."
Kearney's proposal has already started getting national attention, from the Las Vegas media to USA Today. If Pennsylvania enacts such a law, he says, it could open the floodgates across the country.
"It only takes one state to step up and do something like this for others to take notice," Kearney concludes. "Look, this ain't Vegas: What happens in Pennsylvania won't stay here for very long."