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State gambling expansion awaits Senate action

Source: www.observer-reporter.com

At 34, State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler said he’s the only millennial in that body, and he doesn’t want legalized gambling in Pennsylvania to miss out on opportunities and innovations that would attract those in his age bracket.

A bill that passed the State House Wednesday would greatly expand gambling in the Keystone State, which faces a huge budget deficit.

“I’m the prime sponsor on the VGT in the Senate,” said Reschenthaler, R-Jefferson Hills, Thursday of the video gaming terminals he hopes to see become a vehicle for revenue outside of casinos.

Bars would be able to have five devices and truck stops, 10. Airports would also be fair game for gaming. The largest jackpot would be $1,000.

“We already had the debate in Pennsylvania long ago about whether we would be a gaming state or a nongaming state,” the senator said.

The “long ago” to which he was referring occurred in the early 21st century, culminating in the legalization of casino gambling in 2004, when the senator-to-be was in law school. His district is mainly in Allegheny County, home to The Rivers Casino, but he also represents Peters Township in Washington County.

“Demographics,” he said, “are shifting to online gaming.

“I don’t like gambling personally. Ideologically, I believe we should legalize what’s going on and tax it and regulate it. We need to get nontaxed revenue.”

Both he and State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Monongahela, cited a state police statistic that 40,000 gambling machines are operating illegally, unlicensed and untaxed.

Another potential source of revenue he sees are daily fantasy sports, which he said is different from sports betting and lacks consumer protection. He would make the age to participate 18, the same as purchasing a lottery ticket.

While Pennsylvanians make lottery purchases in person from a machine that spits out tickets, Reschenthaler said the wave of the future is iLottery, an interactive gaming program that would operate online.

Casinos, which serve alcohol, would continue to serve a clientele age 21 and over. Online poker appeals to this demographic, and integrating the two at casinos would be done with the objective of ushering younger people through the doors.

“Baby boomers are more likely to go to casinos and play slots, which are chance-based,” he said.

As an example, Reschenthaler brought up gambling expansion in a state similar in size to Pennsylvania with similar demographics. Illinois enacted it in 2009 with an opt-in for communities, and in 2015, the state collected an additional $274 million in revenue. The next year, the pot grew to $322 million. Chicago, the biggest city in Illinois, opted out.

The State House estimates if its bill is signed into law, Pennsylvania would be receiving an additional $250 million to $300 million during the first year.

Bartolotta said Thursday her focus is on a different aspect of the gambling revenue pie.

“My main concern to get the Local Share Account fixed, make it Constitutional and get that across the finish line,” she said.

A court case has jeopardized the local share of casino revenue stream that accompanied the facilities’ host communities and counties. Areas that have no casinos want to benefit from the revenue, although they do not deal with the expenses of wear-and-tear on their roads with increased traffic, policing and related court action.

She called communities’ uncertainties about the amount of revenue from local casinos “terrifying.”

A solution Bartolotta proposed is to create satellite casinos that would offer off-track betting and slot machines, but not table games.

“I think every single one of them has slot machines sitting in storage,” Bartolotta said of casinos.

She also sees satellite casinos as providers of jobs, both in staffing and in the building or renovation of sites that could attract tourists, but said she does not want to see facilities that would “cannibalize” the customer base from the casino.

“We just dropped the bill (Wednesday),” she said. “It doesn’t even have a number yet. I believe my legislation would provide the greatest return on investment building brick-and-mortar establishments.”

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