Elements of a hard-fought compromise package on expanded gambling in Pennsylvania are starting to take shape as lawmakers struggle to complete a plan to pay for a $32 billion state budget.
Legislative leaders, along with Gov. Tom Wolf, are said to be seeking about $700 million in recurring revenues to close out the budget, and all sides have committed to doing that without an increase in the state income tax.
Gambling expansion has significantly slowed the effort, as warring factions have clashed for weeks over how deep to plunge in this next wave of legalization.
By Friday, two tracks appeared to be developing:
One including items that most caucuses and the governor's office are actively working to finalize language on; and a second made up of items that don't yet have a critical mass of support from all players.
Nothing is finalized yet.
And, given the fragile nature of the coalitions needed to pass any major expansion of legal gambling, it's entirely possible this week's drafts will need a significant rewrite after rank-and-file members see them this weekend.
But at this writing, drafting work was focused on: Authorization of Internet-based games; Authorization of up to 10 new casino sites around the state; and a possible bump up in the existing slots tax rate.
The battle over whether or not to include language permitting slots-style video gaming terminals in Pennsylvania's bar, taverns and private clubs lingers on the back burner, and its supporters had not conceded the fight.
But after three weeks of intense lobbying that has taken the shape, at times, of a House / Senate showdown, VGTs still lack majority support in the state Senate or any public signs of support from Wolf.
Wolf's public silence on the issue drew the ire Friday of House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, one of several House leaders who has wanted to make expanded gambling the centerpiece of the 2017-18 revenue package.
"He's the one that committed to the leaders that he would do expanded gaming. He's the one who committed to that," Turzai said of the governor. "So he's got to help close this. And I would be doing that today if I were him."
Wolf, to date, has limited his comments on gambling expansion to saying that he doesn't want to see existing businesses - including the Pennsylvania Lottery - cannibalized.
Here's a further look at some of the planks that are advancing.
Category IV casinos.
The new "Category IV" casinos have evolved from a plan to try to boost gaming revenue without harming the existing operators.
Details are scarce.
But under drafts of the concept, sources said, this plan would likely start with a market study aimed at determining the best sites for a new batch of casinos offering at least 500 slot machines and table games.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board would then auction off site-specific licenses to interested bidders from a pool of each of the state's existing casino operators. The goal is that at least some of the licensing revenues would be stirred into the revenue pot for 2017-18.
The plan - which would likely push casino gambling into smaller cities like Williamsport, Altoona/Johnstown or Gettysburg, to name a few - has been endorsed by many current Pennsylvania casino operators as an alternative to VGTs, which they see as more damaging to their already maturing markets.
Pennsylvania slots play dropped off by 2.2 percent in 2016-17, with nine of the 12 casinos seeing drops from the prior year.
Legislative supporters like Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington County, contend a few more strategically-placed casinos will bring construction investment, hundreds of permanent jobs and revenue streams for new batch of host municipalities.
They also argue it's better to grab that revenue from highly-regulated centralized sites, than opting for the every-town exposure likely from approval of VGTs.
But several existing operators, including Wyomissing-based Penn National, which operates the racetrack casino in Grantville, have conditioned their support on winning adequate market protections for the larger geographic areas they draw from.
This piece of the plan is still in development and could collapse for a number of reasons, like casino owners concluding net gains aren't worth the new costs, or VGT supporters seeing it as creating a gambling saturation point that blocks their path to legalization for years.
But this is the trail being blazed now, several sources, most of whom asked not to be identified because of the delicate stage of negotiations, told PennLive this week.
Internet Gambling/Online Lottery sales.
This plan would make Pennsylvania the fourth state to permit in-state bets on on-line games run through licenses awarded to the existing commercial casinos.
Proponents of Internet-based games have argued that this will help the casinos tap a new market among younger adults who generally are not regular patrons at the existing casinos now.
New revenue would be taxed at 26 percent for slots-style games, with 24 percent earmarked for the state's general fund, and 20 percent for table-style games like poker or blackjack, with 18 percent going to the state.
The other 2 percent share would be steered back to the casino's host municipality, according to current drafts.
This comes with a provision to permit the Lottery to sell tickets via the Internet.
Supporters, including the Wolf Administration, have sought this move to help the Lottery - Pennsylvania's original public gambling franchise - stay on an even competitive footing as the market jumps into cyberspace.
In what could prove to be a prescient move, the bill would authorize gambling on major league sports games if and when that under-the-table national pastime gets a formal green light from the federal government.
The U.S. Supreme Court last month announced it would hear a case on New Jersey's long-stalled attempt to break into that market - currently banned by federal law - later this year.
The draft bill would also authorize the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to regulate daily fantasy sports games and authorizes games on tablets at Pennsylvania's major airport terminals.
The combination could mean, according to preliminary fiscal projections, between $150 million and $200 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year, most of it in new licensing fees.
As for the issue of VGTs, supporters of that concept were still looking for a way into the final deal Friday, but acknowledged they still were short votes in the state Senate.
Perhaps the most fiercely lobbied issue in the current budget cycle, a group of key former legislative staffers have won the staunch allegiance of House GOP leaders, who have insisted as recently as this week that VGTs be part of the revenue mix.
The argument for the machines is that it opens a now 10-year-old legal gambling market in Pennsylvania to potentially thousands of bars, restaurants and private clubs that now must compete for leisure dollars with casinos and an expanded array of alcohol-to-go providers.
Proponents have argued that with 34,000 machines at 8,000 facilities, it could generate $500 million dollars in taxes for the state, and local governments could also benefit from a cut of the proceeds in any given municipality.
But that irresistible force met an immovable object in rank-and-file members of the state Senate, many with established casinos in their own districts, who worried that the creation of thousands of new gambling sites would eat into the market share of a valued tax-raising partner.
Combined with gambling opponents, and city Democrats concerned about the social costs of flooding low-income neighborhoods with machines, the pro-VGT forces appeared to be stuck at about 20 votes in the 50-seat chamber.
There may be a few more rounds in this fight.
There was a late effort this week to insert language permitting "games of skill," a term of art referring to VGT-like machines that require some manual participation, like hitting a stop button to stop the spinning prize symbols.
These games have been ruled as non-gambling devices now by two county courts in decisions that don't carry statewide precedent, meaning they are permitted just like pinball machines in those counties.
The alternative effort would define them as betting devices, legalize them and set taxes much like the VGT proposal. But sources familiar with the talks said that did not appear to active in the drafting process as of Friday.
If there is not sufficient support for enough other revenue sources, it's possible that by a process of elimination, the money VGTs promise could still become essential to balance the budget.
There is one consolation prize, however.
Revamped language governing casino payments to host municipalities required by a recent court decision is set to be effective for one year. That means gaming issues would have to be revisited next year, essentially guaranteeing VGT supporters a fresh chance to make their case.
One last issue that is gaining momentum at the drafting table is a proposal to raise the current 54 percent state tax on slot winnings by 1 percentage point. Proceeds would be split between a new fund to help stabilize under-performing casinos, and infrastructure projects in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.