The Pennsylvania Capitol in late June swirled with reports that gambling expansion was again on the agenda of legislative leaders.
But then there was no vote, and not even a bill introduced.
So what happened?
That’s a little hard to discern, as no public discussion ever took place of the proposal to legalize tens of thousands of video gaming terminals, or VGTs, at Pennsylvania bars and clubs with liquor licenses. It was only debated behind closed doors within the Senate Republican caucus, whose leaders reportedly pushed for the expansion. Specific details of the draft legislation were never widely circulated.
And now the Senate is adjourned until a fall legislative session in which controversial topics are typically off-limits until after November’s general election. It remains to be seen whether the VGT proposal will be resurrected then — perhaps tied to the state’s bleak budget situation — or if it has been sidelined indefinitely by opposition from various sides.
The votes just weren’t there
A spokesman for Pennsylvanians Against Illegal Gambling, a group backed by Parx Casino and other casino interests, had the simplest answer for why the VGT plan never reached the Senate floor.
“They didn’t run the bill because, obviously, they couldn’t get to 26 votes” in the 50-member chamber, said Pete Shelly, the Harrisburg public relations consultant who has criticized the proposal.
“I can’t say why they didn’t get to 26 votes, but they worked like hell to get there,” he said. “It just didn’t happen for them.”
Pennsylvania’s casino industry was up in arms at the prospect of unanticipated competition for operators who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their facilities and license fees over the past 10 to 15 years. Most of their revenue comes from slot machines, to which VGTs are virtually identical.
It wasn’t only casinos and lawmakers sympathetic to them that opposed the expansion, however. Among others noted to be opposed in media accounts were:
- Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is ultimately responsible for the PA Lottery, whose officials worry about competition to lottery revenue. (Senate Democrats offered no public endorsement of the VGT expansion.)
- Conservative Republicans who, on moral grounds, are against any newly legalized gambling in a state that is already heavily dependent on it.
- Manufacturers and distributors of Pennsylvania “skill games,” an alternative gambling device to VGTs. Their games are already heavily present in the state’s clubs, bars, and convenience stores, and their backers fear the VGT proponents were tailoring the legislation in a manner that would shut them out.
As usual, money is a driving force
The new legislative effort was ascribed to two of the top Republicans in Harrisburg, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman.
Both of them represent rural districts far from the state’s casinos.
Among their constituents are many taverns and fraternal clubs suffering financially since COVID-19 health concerns began limiting public gatherings across the state, and which see above-ground access to gambling revenue as one way of compensating.
Backers of the efforts have also pointed to the state’s need for additional funds in facing a COVID-related budget hole. They note it could begin taxing and regulating a form of gambling that is already widespread though unsanctioned in venues across the state, whether they be illegal machines or the skill games existing in a gray area of the law.
“They are everywhere and they are completely unregulated, and I think it’s time to bring them into the light of day,” Corman told Spotlight PA.
That media organization’s initial account of the behind-the-scenes proposal also noted that Scarnati’s campaign fund had been heavily supported by a Nevada gaming company hoping to be a major player in future VGT activity in Pennsylvania. For now, VGTs are limited to five at a time in truck stop locations meeting certain criteria, and there will be hundreds at most in the state instead of many thousands.
House support is an open question
Sometimes, major legislation in Harrisburg can proceed quickly, with limited debate, because it gets a simultaneous push from leaders in both the House and Senate. That’s particularly true when the two chambers are dominated by the same party, as is the case now under Republican control.
But the Senate VGT plan — whatever it is — evidently has no concurrent House backing.
Rep. Jim Marshall, a Republican who chairs the House Gaming Oversight Committee, said no new gambling expansion discussions have taken place recently among the House GOP caucus.
He was aware of the Senate proposal, Marshall said, but had no position on it and knew of no backing for it from House leaders.
“Even if the Senate would have gotten something over to the House, there’s no guarantee it would necessarily move in the House,” he said.
Enacting any new gambling expansion is difficult, Marshall said, because of the many different constituencies involved and the contrasting views of lawmakers who want even more gambling and those who think the state has already gone too far.
“There are a lot of proposals out there, trying to find something that would be a compromise and something that wouldn’t be damaging to casinos,” said the Beaver County lawmaker.
“There’s so much diversity in the gaming world, and in Pennsylvania as well. I have members of my committee that believe we should leave things the way they are and really don’t want to bring more VGTs out in the open. And some members believe the skill games are OK as they are, while some members have introduced legislation to make them illegal.”
As to whether any version of gambling legislation will find support in the fall to get through both chambers, Marshall wasn’t laying odds, while noting “nothing’s on the front burner” in the House.
“Finding a compromise is challenging,” he said. “It’s hard to predict what we can accomplish.”
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