Pennsylvania House OKs biggest gambling expansion in years
HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Wednesday night passed sprawling gambling legislation, unveiled just hours earlier, to expand casino-style gambling to the internet, airports, bars and elsewhere in a move that could shape how the state government deals with its deficit-riddled finances this summer.
The bill was marshaled by Republican majority leaders toward the floor vote, a last-ditch move to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from taxes and license fees to help prop up, if temporarily, the state's threadbare treasury. The bill represents perhaps Pennsylvania's biggest gambling expansion since it legalized casinos in 2004, a law that made it the nation's No. 2 commercial casino revenue state.
It passed narrowly, 102-89, less than a year after similar legislation failed in the House. The vote capped years of unsuccessful efforts by some lawmakers to bring legal gambling to bars.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said the vote was an important step before budget negotiations heat up this month. It was not clear whether it would garner support from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf or the Republican-controlled state Senate, which passed a much narrower gambling bill last month. But Reed said that there is little support in the House for the money-raising alternative, a tax increase.
Wolf avoided giving his position on the bill Wednesday night, saying in a statement that he is committed to reaching a consensus on gambling legislation that carries new revenue and protects jobs and programs for seniors.
Opponents complained during floor debate that they had not had a chance to read the bill, made public Wednesday afternoon, or ask questions about provisions that could allow gambling at thousands of bars.
"If you've all had the chance to read it, I don't know how you did it," Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, told colleagues.
Supporters said tax revenue from new gambling would benefit bar owners, local governments, veterans organizations and volunteer fire companies, while tapping into activities — online gambling and video gambling in bars — that are already going on, albeit illegally.
"There is a lot of good in this bill for everyone," said Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster.
Some gambling revenue was set aside in the bill as earmarks as GOP leaders searched for eleventh-hour votes. Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Columbia, said the bill would loosen the casinos' grip on legalized gambling in Pennsylvania and favor small business owners in a "Main Street vs. Wall Street" fight.
Opponents warned of a wave of gambling addiction and argued that widespread gambling in bars would cannibalize the money for schools that is fed by casino gambling revenue and the money for programs for the elderly that is supplied by lottery play.
House Gaming Oversight Committee Chairman Scott Petri, R-Bucks, opposed it too, saying the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board and the Pennsylvania State Police had not had a chance to give input on the regulatory scheme envisioned by the bill for new license applicants.
"We're trying to jam something through quickly, and we're trying to get it in under cover of night," Petri said.
Under the bill, a liquor license holder, such as a bar, truck stop, bowling alley, VFW hall or fraternal club, could operate slot machine-style gambling machines, called video gaming terminals. As many as 40,000 terminals would be allowed statewide, with a limit of five at each establishment, 10 at truck stops. Supporters estimated that 7,000 to 8,000 bars and other establishments could be expected to host a terminal, with tax revenue going to the state, the lottery, the establishment and local governments.
Rep. Ed Neilsen, D-Philadelphia, warned that gambling would start up at bars right across the street from churches, day care centers and schools.
Most casinos opposed that provision but largely backed other elements that would let them create an internet portal to bring their games to online audiences, including online gambling parlors at airports, and place slot machines at a couple dozen off-track betting parlors around the state.
The Pennsylvania Lottery also would be able to bring its games online, making Pennsylvania the first state to allow both casino and lottery games online. A separate provision would seek to reinstate a requirement, struck down last year by the state Supreme Court, that casinos pay millions of dollars annually to their host communities.