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Area's lawmakers voice opinions on slots at tracks

May 02, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - It may be too early to place bets on the outcome of Gov. Ed Rendell's proposal to legalize slot machines at Pennsylvania racetracks, but some Franklin County legislators don't want to be at odds with their constituents when the time comes.

"I'll be voting my district, said state Sen. Terry Punt, R-Franklin. "My district is against it."

Punt, whose district also includes Franklin, Adams and portions of Cumberland and York counties, did a survey through his constituent newsletter that he said showed 62 percent of those responding were against slot machines. The number dipped to 54 percent when asked about slot machines only at racetracks.

Calls and letters to his district offices have been more lopsided against slots, Punt said.

Rendell, a Democrat, has proposed allowing as many as 3,000 slot machines at up to eight horse racing tracks as part of a plan to generate revenues to fund public schools and reduce property taxes. The proposal says legalization of slots would generate an estimated $300 million in its first year and up to $800 million in future years.

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State Rep. Stephen Maitland, R-Adams, said his constituents narrowly disapprove of the proposal, with his survey showing 46 percent against slots, 43 percent in favor and 11 percent with no opinion.

The details of how slot machine money might be spent, however, made more of a difference in his district, he said. Voters there, he said were against some of Rendell's new initiatives by margins of 3-to-1 or 4-to-1.

Initiatives for all-day kindergarten, universal preschool and a plan to reduce class sizes were viewed unfavorably by voters, according to Maitland.

"I'm leaning against slots at the tracks, but I haven't ruled it out completely," Maitland said.

"I'm just undecided about it and I'm trying to listen to all sides of the issue," said state Rep. Jeff Coy, D-Franklin. That includes his colleagues in the House and the people of his district.

"There's no question that if you're going to expand some of the education proposals, you're going to have to have additional revenues," Coy said. The choice is to fund them through higher taxes or the gaming proposal, he said.

"It's sort of that difficult and that simple," Coy said.

"Philosophically, I don't agree with funding education with gambling revenues," said state Rep. Patrick Fleagle, R-Franklin. "I think we're going to have more problems caused by gambling than solved."

State Rep. Allan Egolf, R-Perry, agreed.

"It's just one more step. The next step is casinos and riverboats," Egolf said. The negative impact of slots at tracks might not be widespread, but he said he was concerned about the expansion of gaming in the state and its effect on crime and other social problems.

"Let's not start down that road," said Egolf.

Regardless of how they viewed the issue, the legislators said legislation to legalize slots could pass the House.

"I don't know how it's going to go in the Senate. Unfortunately they have pretty good numbers in the House," Egolf said of gaming proponents. "I think it's going to be close. It could pass."

"There is significant support from what I hear and talking to my colleagues," Coy said.

"The pro-gambling people have brought down their own house in the past by Christmas-treeing legislation with amendments," Maitland said. "If they limit the debate to just slots at the tracks, then it has a reasonable chance."

"I think we'll be lucky if we get things done by June 30," Punt said of the deadline for passing a state budget. He said the Republican-controlled Senate passed a budget weeks ago, but Rendell vetoed the $4 billion allocated for public school subsidies.

"We are still awaiting specific bills that would show us exactly what he wants us to do," said Fleagle. If those bills aren't forthcoming, Fleagle said, Republicans "are going to have to come up with our own plan for funding education."

"He has stepped forward on these proposals and they're going to take shape very soon," Coy said of Rendell's education plan. Specific legislation is still being drafted, he said earlier this week.

In March, the Maryland General Assembly defeated legislation to legalize slot machines at racetracks.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had proposed slot machines to raise money for education and help close the state's budget deficit.

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