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Karen Heller: Gaming revenue a sure losing bet

O Table games, O Table Games How lovely are your profits! Your lucre green will always grow In Harrisburg through winter snow

O Table games, O Table Games

How lovely are your profits!

Your lucre green will always grow

In Harrisburg through winter snow

Oh, snap and craps! Here we thought the Pennsylvania legislature was going to deal us blackjack and poker for the holidays because nothing quite says Christmas like seven-card stud.

But no. Table games have been tabled. We will have to wait until January, or perhaps Groundhog Day, to get the roulette ball going.

Gov. Rendell, in what might be called a snake-eyes-for-students move, held up $647 million in appropriations for Pennsylvania State, Temple, and Lincoln Universities and the University of Pittsburgh until Thursday night in an effort to get his games. Now, he says 1,000 government jobs are on the line if the measure isn't passed by Jan. 8 to generate a projected $250 million in revenues to close the budget gap. Basically, it's shut up and deal.

Despite yesterday's opening of the expanded Parx Casino slot emporium - does the x make it sexy? - this is a bad time to gamble. During the last two years, gaming revenues have declined 20 percent in Las Vegas. "The recession really destroyed the whole myth of the gaming industry being recession-proof," says William R. Eadington, director of the University of Nevada Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming.

Pennsylvania's almost 18 percent growth in gambling this May over last proved an exception, attributable to expansion and novelty, Eadington says. Industry officials argue that table games will create 10,000 new jobs, a claim Eadington finds dubious when there are 7,000 jobs at eight casinos now.

Gambling isn't like eating. You either gamble regularly or you don't. So a fixed number of patrons is divided among an expanding number of casinos. Everybody who can reap revenue wants in on the action.

This whole business started because Pennsylvania legislators and investors were upset that residents gambled in Atlantic City, all that potential revenue heading downstream to the Shore.

But other states wanted casinos, too. Now, the East Coast is saturated with slots. Delaware has gambling. Maryland is mulling casinos. And New York. (Last month, on the state's other side, Ohio approved casinos, scheduled for 2012.) Eight years ago, there were 58,000 gaming devices from Maine to Maryland; today, 114,000.

Instead of wooing attendant dollars to the state, "you neutralize any tourism or encouragement to cross borders. You end up with casinos that cater to your own citizens," Eadington says. And hard-core gamblers bring serious issues: crime, predatory lenders, family disruption, increased needs for social services. The weakest and most compulsive gamblers become the state's problem. They end up costing us all.

High rollers are never going to visit here when locales with better weather and casinos beckon. Despite the drama and delays, gambling is "an easy out" to budget woes, Eadington says. "Considering the alternatives of increasing taxes or cutting spending, all gambling requires is to change the law at no cost to the state to generate revenue."

Meanwhile, Pennsylvanians continue to cross the borders to buy liquor, understandable since many State Stores resemble correctional facilities. Here's an idea for Harrisburg: Get out of the hooch business. Stimulate competition. Here's another: Woo green-technology firms dedicated to making homes energy-efficient, and extend temporary tax incentives to create jobs. Far more people own homes, and want to cut utility bills, than visit casinos. Green investments could increase property values, a boon to owners and government coffers.

Multiple states adopting the same solution for finite revenue, the rush for fool's gold, reflects a paucity of creativity and poor long-term planning, the easy out, that will ultimately fall short of creating the projected cash, jobs or tourism. We're slow to the table. It's too much, too late.