When the dust settles in Harrisburg for the Christmas break this week, state lawmakers may well have made Pennsylvania one of the most gambler-friendly places in the nation. But that's no way to spread holiday cheer.
If lawmakers succeed in adding blackjack and table games to slots parlors, they will have expanded the state's gambling empire by making it easier for casino patrons to blow the mortgage payment or their 401(k).
Now gamblers haunting the slot machines and craps tables will be able to bet the house - literally. Thanks to scrapping the state's previous ban on casino credit, gamblers will be able to borrow their wagering stakes.
Groups including Casino-Free Philadelphia, Asian Americans United, Philadelphia churches, and social-service agencies rightly decry this proposal as predatory and dangerous, saying it will lead to more problem gambling. At least on this issue, the state's 2004 slots law struck a better balance by requiring that patrons have cash in hand to gamble.
It was bad enough that casinos are allowed to operate around the clock and keep patrons well-oiled with free cocktails. (Helping gamblers forget how long they've been wagering and how much they've lost is a time-honored casino business practice.)
But the current push to extend lines of credit is part of the arms race with other states expanding gambling. In typical fashion, the legislative sausage-making process is taking place during late-running sessions where lawmakers vote on sweeping last-minute proposals they've had little time to read, much less digest.
No liberalization seems beyond the pale. Another proposal would assure that liquor keeps flowing at casinos, even if its operators run afoul of state liquor licensing laws for such infractions as serving minors.
Special exceptions even apply to one casino's long-stalled efforts to get up and running in Philadelphia. The House-approved measure anticipates yet further grace periods to build the Foxwoods Casino in the city despite strong civic opposition to the river site.
Lawmakers also appear willing to practically give away the lucrative license to add table games. State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks) described the latest license fee and tax rates as an early gift from Santa.
Despite a package of reform measures included in the table- games legislation, there likely still will be loopholes that allow casino interests to funnel money to elected officials. Similarly, the House plan to earmark some local table-games revenues for specific hospitals, libraries, and community colleges raises red flags about political favoritism.
The House proposal to add one more resort casino license makes no sense and is likely to lead to legal challenges. The state has yet to build out the original licensed slots parlors - particularly the two city casinos - so it makes no sense to add more gaming halls now. That's especially true before reforms take hold.
At least, Pennsylvania State University and other state-related universities appear to be in line to receive Harrisburg appropriations after months of delay. In holding the schools hostage to the table games talks, legislative leaders and Gov. Rendell simply were derelict in their duties.
Of course, the university funding delay illustrates the warped priorities in Harrisburg. Higher education can wait while Rendell and lawmakers cozy up to the high rollers.