Airliners approaching from the south to land at Philadelphia International Airport pass over block after block of rowhomes and abandoned brick industrial buildings — in essence, the footprint of just about any former manufacturing-dependent urban area in America’s Northeast and Midwest.
Without a ticket for reference, passengers might as well be passing over Columbus or Buffalo, as little on the ground gives a clue to the plane’s position.
And then the bright lights and racetrack of Harrah’s comes into view: This is Chester.
Without getting into the merits of or arguments against legalized gambling, slots and other casino-based gaming is a fact in Pennsylvania, and have been for more than a decade. The public debate over the utility of adding gambling revenue to municipal coffers was settled long ago, during the administration of the last Democratic governor and the leadership of a different group of Republicans in Harrisburg.
“Today, the people of Pennsylvania are true winners,” then-Gov. Ed Rendell said at the time, during a July 5, 2004 ceremony in Bensalem that saw him sign the enabling legislation legalizing slot machines into law. “Starting now, we begin the long-overdue process of recapturing billions of dollars in lost revenue.”
Back then, the propensity of droves of Pennsylvanians to spend tourism dollars in Atlantic City, N.J., was a major factor in bringing casinos here. Today, Atlantic City is fighting for its political life, trying to prevent a state takeover in the wake of fiscal insolvency brought about by the failure of its casinos.
Back then, the deal made with citizens of the commonwealth was that gaming revenue, collected through taxes, would allow municipalities to reduce their property tax rates, thereby heralding a new era of growth. Today, following a determination by the state Supreme Court that the current fee structure is unconstitutional, that bargain isn’t so certain.
Now that legislators in the General Assembly have failed to approve new legislation to make up the difference, the bargain is downright nonexistent. And if anybody could use that money, it’s the citizens of Chester.
“The city can’t afford to lose even a penny there,” Delaware County Council Chairman Mario Civera Jr. told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week. The report noted that the onetime regional automobile capital and home of William Penn’s first landing site on these shores received $12 million — 27 percent of its budget — last year from Harrah’s. The legislation now stalled in Harrisburg would help Chester answer for the resultant hole of more than a quarter of its budget, but the state Senate and House of Representatives can’t agree on exactly how to solve the problem.
And they don’t intend to until January.
It’s no secret that legislators in general, and state legislators in particular, possess some of the lowest approval ratings in the political world. That may have changed momentarily with the existence of two particular presidential hopefuls at the top of the ticket in next week’s election, but legislatures suffer from the perception that one of the only things they’re good at doing is doing nothing. A full two-thirds of respondents in a January Franklin & Marshall College poll said the state is “on the wrong track,” the highest dissatisfaction rate in the poll’s 21-year history.
“We are in historic territory,” pollster and political science professor G. Terry Madonna told The Morning Call when the poll came out. “This is about the dysfunction in Harrisburg.”
Still, a conclusion that our legislators do nothing or little is unfair. The General Assembly did, in fact, approve a slew of legislation in the waning days of its session last week, including a historic bill prohibiting the commonwealth from doing business with entities that engage in boycotts of Israel that, as soon as it is signed by Gov. Tom Wolf — he’s promised to do so — will make Pennsylvania only the 14th U.S. state to outlaw such practices.
Another bill to be signed shortly by Wolf will make the dreams of beer distributors and drinkers come true, allowing consumers to walk into any distributor to buy a six-pack or single can, as opposed to a minimum 12-pack of the beverage.
Pennsylvanians have been clamoring for years to loosen the monopoly the state holds on the sale of alcohol, so this piece of legislation is not inherently bad. But it does leave open the door to the perception that legislators would rather get the Miller Lite into your hand more easily than enable communities like Chester to fund the shortfalls made possible only by the faulty deal led to gambling’s legalization in the first place.
For the most part, the representatives we elect to be our voice are by definition good people and have the public good at heart. But our compound republic depends on all citizens to trust their public servants, and for those public servants to earn that trust in return. Legislators can clearly do better, and they must if voters in Chester and throughout Pennsylvania are to have any faith in their government.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected].