Give it Back!


In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose. In the end, we get it all.       Sam Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), Martin Scorcese’s Casino

The Rivers Casino has a monopoly on legal slot machine and table game gambling in the city of Pittsburgh. Apart from traveling to the Meadows in Washington County, the much longer trip to Erie, or a drive out of state, the Pittsburgh resident bent on spending Friday’s paycheck or throwing away the rent money has nowhere to go except to the temple of vulgarity on the city’s Northside (North Shore, to the sophisticates).

It was Governor Ed Rendell who demonstrated the genius of recovering all of the revenue lost to out-of-state slime balls exploiting addicted gamblers and returning it to Pennsylvania slime balls. Through his diligence, casino gambling arrived in Pennsylvania in 2004. The days of politicians encouraging citizens’ higher sentiments are obviously far in the past. Never mind that casino gambling, like the latest public health problem, opioid abuse, or alcoholism or mental illness are symptoms of an increasingly desperate poor and working class looking for a break and an escape from the myriad disappointments of life in an era of unparallelled inequality.

My own Puritan instincts aside, the monopoly status of the Rivers Casino, like similar government-granted monopolies, awards the owners with a license to plunder. One would expect that those granted such privileges would be suitably humble and appreciative.

But not so.

Back when the Pennsylvania Gaming Board was considering license applications, gambling enterprises were falling over each other, offering juicier and juicier deals to acquire the license to steal. Each contestant promised to fulfill an urban politician’s wish list from buying the Penguins a new arena to sharing large chunks of revenue with the county and city. Backs were bent and, no doubt, some money was offered to fixers and campaign war chests. At one point, then-Mayor Tom Murphy, purposely or accidentally, asserted that the “fix” was in for one applicant, sending the Gaming Board promptly in another direction. Maybe, the “fix” was aborted; maybe, the painfully sober Mayor Murphy was simply discovering a belated sense of humor.

At any rate, the license was granted in 2006 to an applicant who quickly defaulted on a $200 million loan. Rushing in to save the day was Holdings Acquisitions Company, a new partner that now holds a controlling interest in The Rivers Casino.

Part of the original deal was an agreement that the casino owners would pony up 2% of slot machine revenue or $10 million to the city every year, whichever was larger. This would not seem that much of a burden for a business that generates about $275 million a year in slot revenue and nearly $200 million in table game revenue. To give some sense of proportion, casino gross revenue is roughly 90% of the amount of money the City of Pittsburgh collects annually for its entire operating budget.

But the Rivers Casino doesn’t want to abide by the original agreement. They are willing to pay the lower amount, but not the minimum. The casino’s legal advisors cite a glitch in the original legislation that might allow them to escape the agreed terms. Moreover, they are suing to recover $65 million in what they consider back “overpayments.” Like the other entertainment venues that rely heavily upon public largesse to make their private bucks, the casino owners are allergic to giving anything back.

But it should come as no surprise that the owners of the casino aren’t ‘giving’ neighbors. They appealed their local property tax assessment that the county initially estimated at $278 million. They subsequently took their case to court, offering their own estimate of $94 million. The judge bent over backwards and fixed the assessment at $199 million.

Nor did the casino (joining the cheap skate Steelers and Pirates) want to continue subsidizing rides to their doorsteps through the publicly-financed tunnel.

The casino owners are notoriously allergic to paying taxes. In Illinois, a sister casino has maneuvered to avoid over $4 million in property taxes over a 5 year period. Though they paid $117 million for that operation, they argue that it’s only worth $62.9 million. Amazingly, the owners cling desperately to these persistently value-losing enterprises.

Beyond cursory, minimal fact-based news stories, our lap dog media has yet to cover owner Neil Bluhm’s various endeavors, possibly because he is a big-time ‘bundler’ of Democratic Party campaign contributions.

But I have a win-win solution to both the city’s revenue problems and the casino owner’s unwanted burdens: the city should buy back the casino and operate it as a public enterprise. Using the powers of eminent domain, the city could take on all the onerous financial responsibilities currently contested by the casino owners and still accrue net revenues for tax relief, pension funding, infrastructure improvements, etc. And, of course, the current owners could be generously compensated– not at the value they claim for their property ($94 million), not at the value negotiated ($199 million), but at the full value originally assessed ($278 million). In other words, Holdings Acquisitions Company could receive payment nearly three times greater than what they argue their casino is worth!

Of course that will never happen. There is not one elected official in Allegheny County with the spine to suggest, not alone press, such a solution. Every tired,  imaginable excuse would appear: government can’t do anything right, efficiently, or profitably; the law is not clear; the gaming commission will not approve it. But we could be sure that the casino owners would get the message and they would not take their casino and leave as the sports teams always threaten extortionately.

Instead, we get the Mayor’s weak pledge to fight to keep the original deal intact. Sure, like he and his predecessor fought to squeeze revenue from the non-profit free-riders or fought to get the sports teams to live up to their development commitments. Hasn’t happened.

Greg Godels


Police-State Politics as Usual

“Tuesday night I heard about Mr. Sterling’s death, and I felt so very tired. I had no words because I don’t know what more can be said about this kind of senseless death.”

— Roxane Gay on the police murder of Alton Sterling in the July 6 New York Times

When I heard about Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala’s decision not to charge Port Authority police officers for the killing of Bruce Kelley Jr., I felt much the same as Roxane Gay. Gay is an African American writer and professor at Purdue and the police killing spree of black people is getting to be too much for her.  I felt tired too, but also angry.

While preparing to write this blog, I again watched the video footage of a platoon of PAT cops pursuing Kelley – who only wanted to be left alone – through backyards and back streets. His initial crime, you’ll recall, was to be discovered drinking with his father, Bruce Kelley Sr., in a gazebo near the busway in Wilkinsburg last January.  Rather than let the men leave in peace, the cops felt the need to provoke them by issuing tickets, which the Kelleys refused to take, and then escalate the situation further by attempting to arrest the men as they walked away.

They set a police dog on Bruce Kelley Jr., who defended himself by killing the dog. In response, he was riddled with bullets.

I watched the video of that man being hunted like an animal and my anger grew. Then came the death of Alton Sterling, and I watched Baton Rouge cops shoot him while he lay on his back, restrained by two cops.  I was moved to tears by the family’s emotional press conference where his 15-year-old son broke down and cried inconsolably.  That’s when I came across Gay’s column.

No time to catch my breath, though. I woke up the next day, on July 7, to news of the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota and was again emotionally shaken, this time by Castile’s brave girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who live streamed the immediate aftermath, even as her boyfriend sat next to her dying in the driver’s seat while a screaming cop stood outside the car window, still aiming his weapon at the visibly mortally wounded man.  And, oh yes, there was a child in the back seat.

What can you say?  Before the deaths of Sterling and Castile, I was prepared to counter Zappala’s “justifiable” defense claim, point by point.  But why bother?  (My colleague Greg Godels did a fine job of that here back in February.)  Bruce Kelley was the victim of business-as-usual in law-and-order America. Kelley and all the black and brown victims of the police were killed because we live in a hyper-capitalist country where racism and the paranoid fear of “the other” are encouraged in order to keep working and middle-class people divided and pacified.  The police are paid to enforce this ruling ideology.

Will black lives ever really matter as long as America continues as a police state? 

We have a black president who has tiptoed around the issue of race, even as white supremacists and police have taunted him with the brazen murders of African Americans, starting with the killing of young Trayvon Martin. Obama fights racism with corny, moralizing speeches, unlike Lyndon Johnson, who responded to violence 50 years ago against civil rights workers in the South with action.

We have a GOP presidential candidate who openly spews hatred toward Muslims and Mexican immigrants. And the candidate most of us will feel compelled to vote for – Hillary Clinton – professes her love for people of all races, colors, creeds and sexual orientations, and also promises to continue the arrogant foreign policy of endless aggression that has made the United States so many enemies in the Muslim world. These policies will no doubt fuel retaliatory attacks against US and Western targets, which will in turn fuel more anti-Muslim rhetoric at home.

We can take some encouragement from the words of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who came close to calling a spade a spade. But we must always take encouragement, pride and, most of all, leadership from the young people in the Black Lives Matter movement, who are willing to take it to the streets.

Bourgeois Brownnosers

The uproar over the Pittsburgh School Board’s selection of Anthony Hamlet for its next superintendent is finally dying down, and what a fiasco it was. Former city councilman Sala Udin (representing the Hill District Education Council), the group called A+ Schools, the Urban League’s Esther Bush, Tim Stevens of BPEP (all our bourgeois friends!) and others tried to “stand up” to the board’s selection after embarrassing information about exaggerations and discrepancies (why is it that nobody says “lies” anymore?) in Hamlet’s resume came to light.  But for whom are they standing? And just how tall?

There is no denying that the School Board conducted a buffoonish selection process – the discrepancies in Hamlet’s resume (or resumes) could have been uncovered by anyone with Internet access and the motivation to use a search engine.  Still, he was selected by an elected public body – a part-time board made up of working, scuffling people.  The board hasn’t done a great job over the years, but has its performance been any worse than our full-time City Council or General Assembly?  They (like the jury in the O.J. trial) may actually take their jobs seriously and know a little something about the school district business.  And who, if not our elected school board representatives, should select the superintendent?

Superintendents these days (and any days, for that matter) aren’t the great innovators and charismatic leaders that the movies and mainstream rhetoric would have us believe. They’re hired to be administrators of an incredibly complex, even arcane, bureaucracy that politically has very little space for innovation.  Sala Udin and his friends, experienced political players all, know this.  They are fronting for someone with power and privilege – someone who’d rather remain in the background – who wants a better-looking suit occupying the superintendent’s chair.

We should all be for “good government” – and governing – but I’m also for democracy. The school board may have made a good or a bad decision in hiring Anthony Hamlet – or no decision at all, given how power works and from where it comes in the education system.  Superintendents can make important differences – and maybe Hamlet will.  But these days, superintendents don’t produce the “Excellent Experience” that Sala Udin and company are calling for – unless said superintendent comes from a wealthy district.

— Jim Collins