Any number in capital oppose lottery plan

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Is this lottery game over or can we keep playing?

Gov. Tom Corbett believes it's over. He announced last week that he will turn over the big prize, a 20-year contract to manage the Pennsylvania Lottery, to a British company. But people in and out of the statehouse are saying: Not so fast; we think this multibillion-dollar switcheroo may be gaming the citizenry.

You can't say that's just partisan politics. Some of the blowback is coming from Mr. Corbett's fellow Republicans. Five GOP senators, including President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, wrote the governor a week ago saying his deal includes "a broader expansion of gambling ... [that] will directly compete against our highly regulated casinos."

You'd think in the state where this nation's system of checks and balances was born, a governor couldn't just take a billion-dollar asset and decide what to do with it for the next 20 years. But are the ongoing lottery hearings in the General Assembly akin to the Committee to Close Barn Doors in a Horseless Barn? The state contract with Camelot Global Services was signed the same day that Republican senators dated their letter complaining about the keno-driven scheme.

"I don't think it's over," Jay Costa, the Senate Democratic leader from Forest Hills, insisted Wednesday.

Mr. Costa and Frank Dermody, the House Democratic leader from Oakmont, are urging Attorney General Kathleen Kane not to sign off on this deal. A couple of other Democratic lawmakers are party to the lottery workers union's suit to block the deal, and Mr. Costa expects the Democratic caucus from each house to file briefs in opposition, too.

He says the governor has the right to privatize management of the lottery, but so much authority has been turned over in this case that he believes it violates federal law. He also believes legislation can be crafted to define a game of chance so this keno plan of the Brits never crosses the Delaware.

"It would make every bar a casino and every home computer like a slot machine," Mr. Costa said.

Camelot operates the United Kingdom Lottery and advises the California and Massachusetts lotteries, but Pennsylvania's would be the first state lottery it manages. For Mr. Corbett, this is all about an infusion of money; he says this will mean another $50 million for senior programs in his upcoming budget proposal -- and that's just for starters. The additional take will be north of $1.3 billion over the next decade, his people say.

You might think Pennsylvanians already are losing money as fast they can, but pretty much everyone in Harrisburg agrees it's imperative that we blow a lot more. Baby boomers soon will swarm senior centers the way they once rushed Woodstock, and it will take tons more green to sate the graying horde. Accepting that, though, there's still the question of why Pennsylvania must split the proceeds with a British firm owned by a Canadian teachers pension plan.

If you want to bet your usual lottery allowance that this has something to do with future campaign contributions streaming in from the knights of Camelot, your odds are probably better than they'd be playing the lottery itself. But Gov. Corbett, up for re-election in 2014, should be wary about how this proposed deal has been playing among the players. If the phone calls and email I've received are any barometer, the English lottery has polled poorly.

Frank Correnti of Mount Washington was fairly representative:

"I have willingly and regularly lost money to the Pennsylvania Lottery. This will be a great opportunity to stuff five dollars a week into a cigar box. Or just keep it in my daughter's education fund. Plus, I'll feel better about it."

It could be such feelings will pass. Like baseball and hockey fans who vow during strikes and lockouts that they'll never buy another ticket, many could be enticed by the new games. They appear to be the closest thing to video poker without technically being video poker.

Still, in the words of Mr. Costa, "This has been a bizarre process that violates the public trust." He believes the state lottery law would have to be amended before there's any dramatic expansion of gaming through keno and online play.

The trick now is how to reset the numbers.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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