Gov. Ed Rendell is riding high in the polls and sitting on a giant pile of cash as he prepares to seek another four-year term.
He has the state's biggest media outlets (the fawning Philadelphia newspapers and TV stations) in his back pocket. He has the power of incumbency, which allows him to travel all over Pennsylvania at taxpayers' expense for thinly disguised campaign appearances, including handing out millions of tax dollars in areas Rendell needs to buy votes.
But don't bet the farm that Rendell will coast to re-election this November. Rendell has an Achilles' heel.
Rendell promised to cut everyone's taxes when he first ran for governor in 2002. He has failed to deliver on the promise. The best he could do is a rebate plan, where he borrows money from the state lottery to send a few hundred dollars back to low-income seniors. The rest of us — 80 percent of Pennsylvania taxpayers — won't get a dime under Rendell's plan.
Another glaring blunder in Rendell's first term was the middle-of-the-night passage of a casino gambling bill pushed through the Republican legislature. Nearly every Democratic legislator voted for Rendell's gambling plan and enough Republican legislators joined in to form a gambling majority.
Two years later, we are finally beginning to realize how terrible this gambling bill truly is. And politicians are beginning to understand that the anti-gambling constituency is not going away. Many Pennsylvania voters will go to the polls this November with one thing mind: Punish Rendell and the legislators who brought gambling to Pennsylvania.
Republican state Senators, chastised by the drubbing their leadership took in the May primary, have asked the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to delay licensing slots parlors until the Legislature can go back and fix the many loopholes in the gambling law.
A citizens' group called CasinoFreePa is organizing a petition drive to have the entire gambling bill repealed. Even Lynn Swann, the GOP candidate for governor, has figured out that gambling could be his ticket to unseat Rendell. Swann recently called on Rendell to specifically list gambling reforms that the governor favors so the Legislature can act on them.
"Passing a piece of legislation for reform knowing that the governor is not going to sign it means what?" Swann told the Associated Press. "It doesn't mean anything."
So it appears that the first licenses will be awarded in September before the Legislature has an opportunity to fix the holes in the gambling law.
All the nightmare scenarios that gambling opponents warned us about are coming true. We have lobbyists and legislators owning casinos that will be regulated by the state. We have a Gaming Control Board that can't live within its means. The board has already spent all of the money the Legislature has set aside for it and has had to borrow money from other state agencies.
Insiders predict Rendell, if re-elected this November, will go back to the Legislature early in 2007 and propose expanding the slots parlors to full casinos, just like neighboring New Jersey. If the Gaming Board can't get its act together to regulate a dozen slots parlors, what makes you think it can handle full-blown casinos?
Swann also took a shot at Rendell for vetoing a bill two years ago that would have eliminated a provision allowing lawmakers to have stakes in companies licensed under the state's slot machine law. The same bill would have forced Gaming Control Board meetings to be open to the public and it would have imposed right-to-know laws on the board's business. It also would have required State Police background checks of board employees. But Rendell vetoed the bill. Given a choice of looking out for taxpayers or the gambling interests, Rendell always goes where the money is.
Pennsylvania's rush to enact gambling has opened a Pandora's Box of financial mismanagement, shady deals and cronyism. One look at Rendell's campaign contributions from the gaming industry should raise questions about what the governor's motives were in pushing so hard to bring casinos to Pennsylvania.
Outwardly, Rendell promised tax relief from casino revenues, but the numbers don't add up. Several billion dollars will have to be wagered and lost by Pennsylvania residents before one dollar is returned in property tax relief. And there's a strong possibility that no tax relief will come to fruition until after 2010 when Rendell leaves office (should he win a second term).
Eight years is a long time to wait. Rendell promised tax relief in 2002. And something else could have been done in the eight years Pennsylvania residents will probably have to wait for their luck to change.
We know who's already won. Rendell has millions of dollars in his campaign war chest from the gaming industry. Lawmakers can own as much as 1 percent of a gambling company. Political cronies sit on the Gaming Board or have been hired to work for the board. Nearly $50 million in taxpayer money has been spent so far by the board and not a single license has been issued.
We know who the losers are so far: Pennsylvania taxpayers who took Rendell's sucker bet.
E-mail Tony Phyrillas at email@example.com