Pennsylvania House Passes Massive Gambling Bill

Oct 26, 2017

*UPDATED: Oct. 26, 2017 at 12:48pm

The Pennsylvania House is sending a just-unveiled plan to expand casino-style gambling to truck stops, online portals, airports and 10 new mini-casino sites to the desk of Gov. Tom Wolf.

The chamber approved it 109-72 on Thursday, as lawmakers hope to squeeze a couple hundred million more from license fees and gambling losses to help stitch together Pennsylvania's deficit-riddled finances.

The 470-page bill became public Wednesday evening and is packed with pet provisions for certain casinos or lawmakers. It quickly won Senate approval and House GOP majority leaders support it, although Wolf isn't saying whether he backs it. Opponents warn it'll cause an "explosion" of gambling and that it has numerous unforeseen consequences.

Pennsylvania is already the No. 2 commercial casino state, netting $1.4 billion in taxes from the industry last year.

The debate comes as lawmakers hope to squeeze another $200 million a year or more from casino license fees and taxes on gambling losses to help stitch together Pennsylvania's deficit-riddled finances and end a four-month stalemate over how to scrape up the cash.

New gambling cash would also flow to decade-old property tax rebates and local government treasuries, institutions and development projects.

It would make Pennsylvania the first state to allow both casino and lottery games online, in a quest for money from new and younger players. It also would pave the way for the struggling Pennsylvania Lottery — which funds programs for the elderly — to begin offering keno.

The bill became public Wednesday evening and quickly won Senate approval. The House's Republican majority leaders support the bill, although Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf wouldn't say whether he backed it.

Opponents warn that it will cause an "explosion" of gambling.

"We will become a gambling state without parallel," said Rep. Steve McCarter, D-Montgomery.

It also drew complaints from lawmakers that they had had little opportunity to read the complicated bill and that it is packed with pet provisions for certain casinos or lawmakers.

Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, called it "corporate welfare for casinos and special carve outs for special people."

For instance, one provision that would repeal a long-standing limit on casino ownership in Pennsylvania could moot a lawsuit that has held up construction of the Live! Hotel & Casino in Philadelphia for nearly three years.

Another provision would protect much of northeastern Pennsylvania around Mount Airy Casino Resort — founded by billionaire Louis DeNaples — from the construction of a mini-casino that could potentially compete for gamblers. Delaware County would get greater control over a portion of the taxes from Harrah's Philadelphia Casino that goes toward area development projects.

Yet another provision would effectively direct an extra pot of cash to counties with lower performing casinos this year.

The provision allowing truck stops to operate up to five slot-machine-style machines, called video gaming terminals, caught the attention of House Gaming Oversight Committee Chairman Scott Petri, R-Bucks. He said the bill carried a raft of unintended consequences, including a definition of truck stops that is "so broad, anything you think of as a convenience store is a truck stop."

"You literally could drive a truck through the definition and its ability to be misused," he said.

Pennsylvania-headquartered Penn National said it will consider suing over the gambling package, if it becomes law, because of the "uniquely punitive impact" on the Hollywood Casino it owns in suburban Harrisburg.

That prompted Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, to question why Mount Airy Casino would get special protection from the competition of a new mini-casino, but Hollywood Casino would not.

The bill would allow each of Pennsylvania's casinos to bid on a mini-casino license allowing up to 750 slot machines and 30 table games. Bidding would start at $7.5 million, with a table games certificate costing an extra $2.5 million.

*This post has been updated to reflect that Rep. Steve McCarter is a Democrat.