EDITORIAL: Rushed-through gambling bill itself a gamble for Pa.

York Dispatch

Scrambling to fill a massive budget gap, Pennsylvania lawmakers have gone all in on a huge new gambling bill.

Was it the right call? Unfortunately, the measure was whisked through the legislature so quickly — the 470-page bill passed both houses in less than 24 hours — it’s hard to say.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bill Monday, although he had until Nov. 5. The additional time would have given interested parties including local lawmakers and the general public time to digest the contents.

There’s certainly a lot to chew on. The newly-enacted bill will, among other provisions:

  • Make Pennsylvania the fourth state to regulate online gambling.
  • Allow construction of 10 new smaller casinos, joining the dozen larger facilities already in operation.
  • Extend casino-style gambling to truck stops and airports. (Only Nevada and Puerto Rico currently allow gambling in airports.)
  • Include provisions for regulating sports betting, should it receive federal approval.

The measure will be a revenue-generator, no doubt about that. Backers say it could bring in an initial $200 million per year through new licensing fees and taxes, and some industry analysts see as much as $350 million a year or more several years out.

That would take a healthy bite out of the state’s revenue shortfall, estimated at some $2.2 billion.

Indeed, state lawmakers are hoping the bill, packaged with several other measures including a $1.5 billion borrowing plan, will bring the state’s four-month budget stalemate to a close.

That’s all well and good, but what else might the measure bring about?

According to the Associated Press, the package “drew complaints from lawmakers that they had had little opportunity to understand the implications of the complicated, 470-page bill and that it is packed with pet provisions for certain casinos or lawmakers.”

That’s not a good sign.

Yes, plans to expand gambling in the state had long been in the pipeline, but as everyone inside and outside of Harrisburg, knows, the devil is always in the details. Those details should have been explained, examined and debated before the measure was hustled through the legislature — four-month late budget or not.

There is talk of sweetheart deals and provisions for special interests. And Pennsylvania-based Penn National is considering a lawsuit to protect the interests of its Harrisburg-area Hollywood Casino.

In other words, there are plenty of reasons that lawmakers, pressed by the demands of a long-overdue revenue plan though they are, should have taken more time and care in the rollout, review and passage of such an important piece of legislation.

Unfortunately, the gambling bill itself may be something of a gamble.