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Rolling the dice on video poker legalization in Pennsylvania

Brian O’Neill: Rolling the dice on video poker legalization in Pennsylvania

June 5, 2016 12:00 AM
By Brian O’Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When a Pennsylvania legislator says he’s confident a bill can pass, take that with as many grains of salt as Morton can provide. 

Still there are some who believe a 30-year effort to legalize what already happens regularly — video poker payoffs in thousands of our finest saloons — has a real chance this time.

Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon, is a leader of the bipartisan effort and he’s getting plenty of blowback from the state’s powerful casino industry. “What it comes down to is simply greed,” Mr. Mustio said of the casino operators. “They want everything but don’t want anybody else to have anything.”

Indeed, the 12 casinos emailed a collective letter to legislators a year ago decrying the potential “cannibalization of existing gaming revenue.” If the state cuts into their share of the suckers — excuse me, I meant gaming enthusiasts — local governments and the state itself will get less revenue. Harrah’s Philadelphia executives and employees will join local governmental allies at the casino in Chester on Monday “to highlight the dangers of adding thousands of video gaming terminals.” Scared yet?

Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, says, “The casinos, they hate me, which is fine,” but he likens this to the way the state took over the numbers racket by rolling out The Pennsylvania Lottery in 1972. “The casino already know is going on,” Mr. Costa said. “It already has an impact on their industry. It’s not going to change.” So why not regulate what’s already there and get some badly revenue in the bargain?

All 12 casinos — from Mount Airy to The Meadows to the Rivers, white with foam — see this entirely differently. The state’s already taking 54 cents of every dollar slipped into a slot machine, putting it into property tax relief (believe it or not) and other areas. The governments’ take is even higher when other fees are tallied. Yet now, from the casinos’ point of view, the state is preparing combat with their faithful partners of nearly 10 years and putting jobs at risk. The plums for the casino industry in the proposed legislation — 24-hour liquor licenses, the rights to Internet and airport gaming, off-track betting locations for the racetrack casinos — aren’t enough to offset the feared onslaught of VGTs. That’s industry shorthand for video gaming terminals, and they say “VGT” as if it were a communicable disease. They may already be out there, casino operators say, but they’re only going to spread if they’re legalized.

No tavern would be allowed have more than five under the proposal, but that could mean the number of illegal machines in taverns now — often estimated at 40,000 — could more than double, casino operators fear. “Hurting one-state operated industry for another is a dangerous precedent,” Sean Sullivan, vice president and general manager at Meadows Racetrack & Casino, said. The only thing that seems to be in agreement is that nobody agrees on anything. Illinois has essentially run a pilot program for Pennsylvania, legalizing video games a few years ago. They’re in more than 5,000 bars, clubs and truck stops there and they haven’t hurt established Illinois casinos, fans of legalizing Pennsylvania tavern games say. Oh, yes they have hurt Illinois casinos, say Pennsylvania casino operators, and then the two sides throw statistics back and forth with the enthusiasm of a good pie fight.

Amy Christie, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said there won’t be any great expansion of gambling if machines are legalized and regulated. But these games are often crucial in small businesses where profit margins are thin. Why not legitimize longstanding tavern culture and get “a ton of money” for the state? Ms. Christie asks. That sure beats a tax hike. “It sounds to me they’re getting a whole lot,” she said of the expansion of casino options in the bill. ”We’re asking for one thing. That’s it.” Nothing in the 213-page House Bill 649 is a lock. Mr. Costa, for one, doesn’t favor 24-hour liquor licenses for casinos, and casinos don’t think anything in the bill is worth a VGT virus. Still, Ms. Christie said legalization is as close as it’s been in 30 years. When I started to say that less than 10 percent of the bills introduced in Harrisburg become law, she cut me off, saying: “You know who else understands that? My members.”

Brian O’Neill: or 412-263-1947