Gambling money I don't need

Posted: October 12, 2011

By Mark E. Dixon

My family is fortunate. My wife and I are both working. Our income is higher than that of 93 percent of Americans. The mortgage is paid. We live in one of the country's best school districts. There is money to put our daughters through college. We get chirpy regular reports from our investment manager. We vacationed in Europe this summer. Life is good.

So why is Pennsylvania taking money from less affluent residents to give the Dixons a break on our property taxes?

I'm talking about gambling money. This year, Pennsylvania casinos turned over $776.2 million to the state, which was distributed to homeowners in the form of a (slight) reduction in property taxes, amounting to about $200 per household. In our case, the reduction was $176.78. So we paid the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District $5,128.40 rather than $5,305.18.

Why should we get such a break? (It also occurs to me to wonder why anyone would want to spend less on our children's education, but that's another issue.)

Politicians and other gambling apologists like to cite a 2004 Harrah's survey showing that casino patrons are relatively affluent, with a median household income of $53,204, compared with $45,781 among the general population. So - no big deal, right? The typical gambler isn't poor, but just a regular Joe.

Looked at another way, though, gamblers come from the same hard-pressed middle class whose inflation-adjusted income is down 7 percent since 2000. Dangling riches before people in such circumstances is inherently exploitative, even if they win. And, of course, most don't.

The area's casinos are in Bensalem, Philadelphia, and Chester - where median household incomes are 60, 44, and 29 percent, respectively, of Tredyffrin Township's - for a reason. They're following the trail blazed by state lotteries, on which poor households bet a larger proportion of their income.

Casinos are most beneficial to those who run them. The state priced casino licenses at $50 million, though their value was estimated at $280 million to $550 million. (Translation: Robbing Pennsylvanians was always part of the plan.) The casinos also pay no annual license fees and are exempt from normal liquor licensing requirements.

The regulators have done well, too. Tad Decker, the first chairman of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, had been managing partner of a law firm that went on to represent casinos. Anne Neeb, the board's first executive director, was hired at a salary of $180,000, nearly twice what she received for a similar position in Louisiana. Board members are paid $145,000 annually for two days of work per month.

Moreover, the Gaming Control Board - whose members are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders - is subject to little legislative oversight. It's a formula for rewarding insiders - like the lobbyist who had his two minor children listed as board members of a slot-machine distributor.

In so many ways, Pennsylvania's casinos are a metaphor for a casino economy that, over the past decade, has transferred wealth from the middle class to the already affluent.

Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., called this government-casino partnership a "corruption of democracy" when he joined an antigambling group in Maryland. "It violates the most basic premises that make democracy unique - that you trust other people, that you are in this together," he said. "That's what a compact of citizens is. And the first step away from it is to play each other for suckers."

My family is fortunate. So this year, our share of this ill-gotten money is going to Casino-Free Philadelphia. The organization couldn't stop both of the planned Philadelphia casinos, but it did defeat one, and the other is now a third of the originally proposed size. The group is now pushing SugarHouse to discontinue "quicksand credit" loans that allow gamblers to bet twice what they have in the bank.

If, like me, you also got an unneeded break on your property taxes, it's a cause worth supporting.


Mark E. Dixon lives in Wayne. He can be reached at dixon_mark@verizon.net.

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