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Cash muddles slot debate

July 29, 2003

Most Democrats in the Pennsylvania State Senate favor legalizing slot machines at the state's horse tracks. But to keep things above board, they also favor keeping slot-machine company executives from making political contributions.

We agree; lawmakers need to sort this one out on its merits, not on who's kicking in the largest number of dollars.

House Democrats, the majority of whom favor slots, removed the Senate's prohibition on gambling company executives' political contributions because they said it would violate the state's constitution. Senate Democrats say that without such a prohibition, they won't agree to look at any bill for months.

While they're at it, the House and the Senate might want to look at the state's campaign laws, which don't place any limits on contributions by individuals. Businesses can't contribute to campaigns, or to political action committees, but individual executives can. Even if it's not a company-coordinated campaign, when an employer's interests are at stake, its executives have a strong incentive to grease the wheels with campaign dollars.

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We recommend the legislature go ahead and place the prohibition in the law, allowing anyone who strenuously objects to challenge it in court.

Our guess is that won't happen, as gambling interests look at how a Maryland race track operator's contribution of $200,000 to a campaign committee controlled by the Maryland Senate's president has set back the pro-slots cause there.

Somehow eight other states have managed to bar contributions from gambling interests. Lawmakers would do well to look at the experience of those states, to see if there are any potential pitfalls in such a ban.

The Philadelphia Daily News reports that gambling interests spent more than $2 million on Pennsylvania political campaigns in 2001 and 2002. That's a distraction for lawmakers that they shouldn't face when dealing with an important and contentious issue.

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