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The House Always Wins

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Mayor Tom Murphy placed a million-dollar bet last year. He pushed a budget through City Council that included $60 million in tax revenue that didn't exist, in the hopes that the state would approve new levies that would help the city. He was, in other words, gambling that the state could solve the city's chronic deficits.

But so far, it seems, gambling is the state's solution to the city's deficits.

Murphy had suggested two new taxes: a 10 percent levy on alcohol and a "payroll preparation tax" that would apply to every business and nonprofit in the city. Until recently, he'd been coming up snake eyes, but at a July 14 press conference, House Majority Leader John Perzel and Gov. Ed Rendell announced a temporary stopgap. The city could build a 5,000-machine "slot-machine parlor" -- a casino without the class -- and charge a $50-70 million license fee to operate it. That would cover the city's deficit long enough for the state to come up with a better idea, and revenue from the slots would finance a new arena for the Penguins. (Wagering on Penguins games themselves will remain illegal, however. According to the new morality in Harrisburg, gambling for sports teams is fine; gambling on them isn't..)

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised to see state leaders invoke gambling as a short-term fix for lasting problems. Gambling is the answer to everyone's problems this year. Schools aren't funded equitably? Shore up their finances with gambling proceeds. Property taxes too high? Reduce them with gambling proceeds. The Penguins want a new arena? Finance it with gambling proceeds.

There's no problem that can't be solved with gambling, it seems -- even problems caused by gambling itself. For example, expanded gambling often drains revenue from state lotteries and the programs they fund. But state Sen. Jack Wagner (D-Beechview) has a solution. In a July 16 statement, Wagner opined that lottery tickets "should be available for sale at & locations where slot machines are approved." Rendell, meanwhile, is urging that employers reward workers not with cash bonuses but with lottery tickets. Not only will the program boost lottery sales, but it may help encourage gambling by diminishing the value of an honest job. (As a state Web site boosting the program tells employers, "[T]his program can & replace other incentives & thus also improving your budget.")

There's an easy test to tell if you're addicted to gambling or anything else: You start solving the problems your addiction causes by indulging in the addiction more often. When you're taking a drink to cure a hangover, you've got a problem. And when you're offering more gambling to solve the problems gambling will cause, you're hooked.

Pittsburgh, in fact, may already be going double-or-nothing.

Before proposing a budget last year, Murphy convened a "blue-ribbon" task force that deliberated for months before suggesting Murphy's new taxes. Their proposal didn't last 10 minutes in Harrisburg. The alcohol tax was immediately killed by hostile bar owners and legislators, and the idea of taxing nonprofits didn't last much longer.

Part of the problem may be that state legislators, like hard-nosed bookies, are calling in their markers.

Pittsburgh's legislative delegation in Harrisburg is small (and shrinking with every new Census), and the number of Murphy's friends is even smaller, especially in the Senate. Wagner, a Murphy rival in the 1993 mayoral election and the city's senior representative in the Senate. Wagner's colleague, Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Lawrenceville), had a contentious history with the administration as a City Councilor. And when Ferlo was on his way to Harrisburg earlier this year -- a time when the city needed every friend in Harrisburg it could get -- Murphy characterized Ferlo thusly in a Post-Gazette interview: "[A]t the end of the day, he's a scorpion."

Murphy seems to have alienated even legislators he doesn't have a history with. In a letter to the city, state Sen. Sean Logan (D-Monroeville) complained the city hadn't kept him informed about its plans. Logan was especially concerned about plans to increase the city's occupational privilege tax, an annual $10 levy on employees working inside city limits, to $100. Logan's letter gripes that city officials never gave him requested information about the plan or potential alternatives; accordingly, he advised Murphy, "as you keep track of ayes and nays, don't forget to chalk me up in the nay column."

Logan's letter may just be a fit of pique; the city's already halved the $90 increase. And maybe the only reason city officials didn't give Logan more information about what they were doing is they don't have a clue themselves. Compared to the deliberative process of Murphy's blue-ribbon panel, plans in Harrisburg are being shuffled around faster than the eye can follow. If politicians could play the shell game on the streets of Pittsburgh the way the way they do in Harrisburg, we wouldn't need casinos to fleece suckers.

But Logan is not the first state legislator to be put off by Murphy. Some still loathe Murphy for a fast one he tried to pull back in 1997, a "stealth stadium" bill Murphy claimed would release public money to build new professional sports facilities even though legislators didn't realize it.

Until now, Murphy has been lucky betting against the House and Senate. And the odds are that the current gambling package will die in the legislature, partly because opening a casino in Pittsburgh could anger the group that has pushed gambling the hardest: state racetracks that want slot machines of their own and don't want to share the bounty. But there are rumblings that some legislators simply don't want Murphy to be able to take credit for saving the city. And as any gambler knows, in the long run the house usually wins.

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