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Sin Attacks

Should Pennsylvanians be ignorant of slots?

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With the state Senate poised to vote on a bill expanding gambling as early as this week, the smart money says there will soon be slot machines at Pennsylvania racetracks. Gov. Ed Rendell favors the expansion, after all, and most of the debate on the issue in Harrisburg seems to be not whether to expand gambling, but by how much.

At a May 28 meeting at South Side Presbyterian Church sponsored by vocal anti-gambling group NO DICE, however, some 60 people gathered in the hopes of bucking the odds. Presided over by South Side Presbyterian minister Kathy Hamilton-Vargo, the meeting had some of the feeling of a tent revival. Gambling opponents contend that the tax revenues the state will reap from gambling are more than offset by its moral and social costs. Hamilton-Vargo called gambling a "sick corruption" and noted that while economic times were tough, "We can make it through tough times if we follow the ways of the Lord."

"Norm," a member of Gambler's Anonymous (who, like most members of such recovery groups, did not give his last name), told the group that he'd seen the costs of gambling first-hand. While the group takes no position on gambling expansion per se, Norm did note that wherever gambling is expanded "the attendance of Gambler's Anonymous mushrooms. & Where there [are] more forms of gambling available, we get more people people & who never had a problem before."

But the real fire and brimstone was preached by Methodist minister Tom Grey, who travels the country opposing gambling as if it were demon rum. "I want to smell the fires that you've lit," he exhorted the assembly. "Any time you see people up against money and muscle, bet on the people." Grey noted that during the most recent push for gambling, in 1994, "The future of Pittsburgh [supposedly] depended on casinos coming in." Given the new construction that's followed since then, however, "Maybe it was a good thing that the casinos didn't come in."

But Grey noted, "If you are here to get some information and see what's going to happen, it's going to happen to you next week." And the dice do seem to be loaded in the gambling industry's favor: The 1990s boom has ended, states are hurting for revenue, and perhaps opponents' spirits are flagging. When Grey asked for people in the crowd of 60 to speak up about whom they'd recruit for the effort, he got precious few hands. Turning to a reporter in the crowd, Grey said, "Write it down: We've got people who just want to get information."

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