Legislative panel prods Phila. on casinos It passed a bill that would withhold funds for the Convention Center until the slots parlors open.

Posted: April 21, 2009

A state Senate committee yesterday approved a bill that would punish Philadelphia for delays in building casinos by cutting off the $64 million a year it is receiving to pay for expansion of the Convention Center.

Sen. Jane M. Earll's bill would direct the Pennsylvania Gaming Economic Development and Tourism Fund to withhold the funding reserved for the $787 million expansion of the Convention Center until the SugarHouse and Foxwoods Casinos are built.

Earll has acknowledged the bill was intended to pressure Philadelphia into cooperating with the building of the two casinos, which once operating would contribute revenues dedicated for statewide tax relief and economic-development projects.

Although both casinos were approved for two riverfront locations in December 2006, very little progress has been made in efforts to get them up and running. The projects were initially held up by opposition from City Council and legal challenges from residents, and later by Mayor Nutter's announcement after taking office in January 2008 that he would seek to move both casinos from the waterfront.

Gov. Rendell, who had warned that such action from the legislature was imminent, yesterday indicated that Nutter's new stance on the casinos rendered the threat unnecessary.

The Nutter administration has dropped its opposition to SugarHouse's waterfront location and is working to allow Foxwoods to move into the old Strawbridge & Clothier building at Eighth and Market Streets.

"We understand legislators' frustration but believe there has been movement in the right direction which makes this legislation unnecessary at this time," Chuck Ardo, Rendell's press secretary, said yesterday.

Rendell has changed his stand on the topic several times. He first said last month that he would consider signing such a bill if it got to his desk. Later, he expanded on that, saying he would indeed sign that bill. The bill - which, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was approved 10-4 - would have to be OKd by the full Senate and the House of Representatives before it reaches the governor's desk.

"What changed is that there appears to be progress toward a resolution of the differences between the developers and the city which would negate the need for the legislation," Ardo said. "The governor expects to see further progress before making a final decision as to whether to support the legislation if it reaches his desk."

Nutter said he didn't object to Earll's wanting to keep everyone "focused" on moving ahead with issuing permits and allowing construction to begin.

"These are legislators in Harrisburg . . . they're trying to do their job, and they want to make sure that everyone stays focused at both the city and state level," Nutter said in an interview outside his office.

Nutter said he spoke with Earll (R., Erie) over the weekend.

"She was very, very understanding of the tremendous progress that we've made here in Philadelphia," said Nutter, who said he gave Earll a complete update with a forecast opening of Foxwoods after Jan. 1 and SugarHouse next March or April.

The bill was approved by the Senate's Community, Economic, and Recreational Development Committee yesterday without a hearing.

Yesterday, Sen. Larry Farnese and Rep. Michael O'Brien, Philadelphia Democrats whose districts include both casinos and the Convention Center, said the state was on the hook financially for the Convention Center expansion and would be placing itself in financial jeopardy if construction is stopped.

"Failure to meet its contractual obligations would not affect the City of Philadelphia but rather the Commonwealth," they said in a news release.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.

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