Capitol divided over how to expand gaming – Sunbury Daily Item


HARRISBURG — A trio of state House members have made clear that a rift with the state Senate over legalizing and taxing video poker machines has not been smoothed over.

Lawmakers in the two chambers continue to struggle to find a compromise on a gaming expansion plan to provide $265 million to help balance the state budget.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman told reporters that he doesn’t think a plan that includes legalizing video poker machines would pass in the Senate. Lawmakers in the Senate prefer a plan that expands gambling through mini-casinos placed in areas of the state that lack one of the state’s 12 casinos – located in Bensalem, Bethlehem, Chester, Erie, Farmington, Grantville, Mount Pocono, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Valley Forge, Washington and Wilkes-Barre.

The House has banked on the gaming revenue as part of its overall plan to balance the budget that also includes a tax plan that calls for borrowing $1.5 billion that would be repaid using a portion of the state’s annual payment from a legal settlement with the tobacco industry. The state Senate has yet to act on either the tax plan or the gaming bill.

Monday, state Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Northumberland County, said he’s not sure the House would pass any plan that scraps the push to regulate and tax the use of video gaming terminals in bars and taverns.

“I don’t think we have the votes in the House (for gaming expansion) without VGTs,” Masser said at a Monday press conference outside the state Capitol. “There are a number of members who will draw a line in the sand.”

Masser said helping the bars would be standing up for small business owners.

The House members prefer the move to legalize video gaming terminals because they believe it won’t actually translate into a substantial expansion of gambling. Masser said that the move would just create a legal framework for gambling that’s already taking place in bars and taverns and an increasing number of other places across the state.

At the press conference, state Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Allegheny County, said that a gas station about a block from the Capitol, had a video gaming terminal in it. Masser said it’s not uncommon to find the terminals in truck stops all over Pennsylvania.

Legalizing the games would set rules, provide oversight to make sure that the games are fair for players and provide the state with tax revenue, Masser said.

Mustio said that bar operators would be more likely to follow the rules if the state set them, because their liquor licenses would be at risk if they flouted the law.

Mustio and Masser were joined by state Rep. Mike Sturla, a Democrat from Lancaster County.

Sturla said that one of the objections being raised by critics of the gaming expansion is that it will harm the state’s lottery, which provides funding to support programs for seniors. Legalizing video gaming terminals, a form of gambling already common across the state, would have less of an impact on the lottery than opening more casino-type facilities like those envisioned in the Senate proposal, he said.

Estimates for how many gambling machines are already in place vary widely. In 2009, State Police Major John Lutz, who at the time was director of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, estimated there were 17,000 illegal slot machines in Pennsylvania. That testimony was at a hearing for legislation that would have legalized the games and used the state’s cut to pay for tuition relief for college students.

Since then, lawmakers and those lobbying on the issue have bandied around a variety of guesses for the number of machines already in play. The most frequent estimate puts the total between 20,000 and 40,000.

Mustio said that if the state’s not going to formally legalize the machines, then the state police should have to step up enforcement. But, he’d prefer that they legalize the video gaming terminals because he’d rather the state police focus on other problems, like the state’s opioid crisis.

Court decisions in Bucks and Beaver counties provided some guidance on what makes video gaming terminals legal or not in those locations, but there is no clear statewide guidance, state police Cpl. Adam Reed said in a June interview.

Last year, state police made just six arrests, all in Allegheny County, but they took administrative action 137 times, according to a state police response to a Right to Know request.

Last month, the Office of Attorney General filed charges against two men accused of operating 125 illegal video gaming machines in 25 bars in Fayette and Westmoreland counties.

The trade group representing tavern owners welcomed the arrests as evidence that the state needs to set statewide rules for bar owners to follow in operating video gaming terminals.

“The fact is until the Senate acts and approves legislation to legalize VGTs, the illegal operations will continue and tavern owners who follow the rules will continue to lose out,” said Tom Boock, president of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, shortly after Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the western Pennsylvania video gambling machine arrests.

John Finnerty is the Statehouse reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., parent company of The Danville News and The Daily Item. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.


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