By Lowman S. Henry

The casino era has dawned in Pennsylvania with slots parlors now open at a number of venues and more slated to open, including at potential sites in Philadelphia.

Site selection in Philadelphia has laid bare a number of serious flaws in the legislation that legalized slot-machine gambling in Penn's woods. Not the least of these problems is the Gaming Control Board's usurping of land-use rights from local municipalities and the citizens they represent.

Pennsylvania has a proud tradition of local government dating back to the town-hall meetings of colonial times. The state is divided into hundreds of municipalities. This is a source of concern for some, pride for others. Regardless, by both precedent and tradition, land-use issues are predominantly decided locally.

Citizens in Philadelphia are rightfully concerned about the impact that casinos will have on their neighborhoods. The John Templeton Foundation recently provided a grant to the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, of which I am chairman and CEO, to conduct a statewide poll into Pennsylvanians' attitudes toward legalized gambling. The poll found that 62 percent expected to see an increase in crime and social problems as a result of slot machines having been legalized. Only 9 percent expected to see a decrease in such problems.

Worse, 43 percent of those polled said they expected the potential increase in crime and social problems to outweigh the economic benefits that casinos might bring to an area, while 36 percent expected the economic benefits to outweigh the problems. Making these numbers even more remarkable is that 62 percent in the same poll said they approved of the decision to legalize gambling - even while admitting it could yield more problems than benefits. (Go to www.lincolninstitute.org for poll results and analysis.)

Arguments by anti-casino activists that there is a considerable downside to the neighborhoods in which casinos are located will likely resonate with voters - assuming they ever get the opportunity to voice their opinion. Philadelphia City Council, adhering to the "let the people decide" principle, unanimously agreed to place the issue on a ballot.

Tad Decker, chairman of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, claimed Philadelphians have no right to decide whether or where the casinos are built. He argued that the power resides in his elected-by-nobody bureaucracy and went to court to stop the referendum. (The Pennsylvania Supreme Court April 25 declined to speed up a final ruling on an anti-slots ballot question, which could prevent a May 15 referendum on it.)

Decker is engaging in yet another big-government, turf-building exercise. His job is to administer the law, not to expand it. By taking the matter to court, the Gaming Control Board has signaled its contempt for both the citizens of Philadelphia and the government that represents them.

Is it any wonder the public is so suspicious of the impact of legalized gambling? During a focus-group session held by the Lincoln Institute on this issue, one participant said he feared the activities of drug dealers and organized crime less than he feared possible abuses by those in state government with the power to oversee legalized gambling.

Those fears appear to have been well-grounded. Not only has state government failed to deliver on the promise of significant property tax relief for all Pennsylvanians - the initial rationale for legalizing slot-machine gambling - but now that it has been given the power to regulate the industry it is moving aggressively to expand those powers even if it means trampling on the powers of other governmental entities. Examples of such actions by the Gaming Board have eroded support for legalized gambling. Forty-five percent of Pennsylvanians said they were less supportive while only 22 percent were more supportive of the Gaming Board.

Casinos, such as Atlantic City's, have a major impact on the neighborhoods in which they are built - usually a decidedly negative impact. The residents of the potential host municipality have a vested interest, in fact a right, to make the final decisions.

Chairman Decker and the Gaming Control Board are out of bounds on this issue. It is yet another point in a mounting pile of evidence that proves the legalization of slot-machine gambling in Pennsylvania was a very bad idea indeed.

Lowman S. Henry is chairman and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, a nonprofit educational foundation based in Harrisburg.