In Pennsylvania, gambling's 'essential'

Pennsylania capitol building

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: What would you define as an "essential" public servant? Police? Firefighters? Of course. And . . . lottery workers?

Late last night, Pennsyvania Governor Ed Rendell shut down the state government, putting all non-essential workers on unpaid furlough. It's his response to a budget impasse with the state's legislature. Turns out the lottery and the state's slot-machine parlors are considered to be in the same category as law officers and prison workers. Marketplace's Alisa Roth explains.


Alisa Roth: Today is not your lucky day if you need to renew your Pennsylvania drivers license. Or if you wanted to visit one of the Keystone State's historic sites.

But if you were hoping to try your luck elsewhere — say the state's lottery or slot machines — well, you're free to give it a shot. That's because those two offices are exempt from the shutdown that furloughed more than 20,000 state employees as of midnight last night.

So, since when are slots and Powerball necessary government functions?

Doug Harbach is a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Board, which oversees the state's five casinos.

Doug Harbach: Well, the casinos themselves are a significant money maker to the state. They're pulling in about $1.7 million per day in tax revenues.

And 31 cents of every lottery dollar goes to state programs, such as rent rebates and discounted public transportation for the elderly.

John Mikesell is a professor of public policy at Indiana University. He says there's not a tremendous amount of money at play.

John Mikesell: It's not a big-ticket item, certainly not on the order of sales tax or income tax or motor fuel taxes. But at the margin, it's something that states would rather have than not have.

But he says the state may be worried about losing those gambling dollars.

Mikesell: Even if the Department of Revenue folks are not working that particular day.

Meanwhile, state legislators are still wrangling over the budget.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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