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Legal gambling in bars can solve state budget crisis, owners say


Flanked by fellow tavern owners and state Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-160, of Upper Chichester, Jack’s Tavern owner Jerry McArdle warned that if video gambling isn’t approved in bars only one thing will happen – taxes will increase.

“To all the hardworking citizens of Pennsylvania, make no bones about it, if this Legislature doesn’t pass (video gaming terminals) and other recurring-revenue plans, you are getting a tax increase,” he said.

McArdle, who is also a county delegate to the Pennsylvania State Tavern Association, said the state stands to earn between $300-$500 million a year, based on Illinois’ experience, if video gambling is permitted to be installed in local bars.

Pennsylvania representatives passed House Bill 271, allowing for VGTs, in the spring. The measure rests in the state Senate but Barrar said senators indicated no interest in voting on it.

“We’ve just met a lot of resistance by many senators who are beholden to the casinos in Pennsylvania ... If it wasn’t for the casinos in Pennsylvania, we would have these VGTs,” claimed McArdle.

Not all share his perspective.

“The legalization of VGTs will jeopardize the $1.4 billion in tax revenues for the state, the jobs of the 18,000 people working in Pennsylvania casinos and negatively impact our communities by flooding our communities with nearly 40,000 mini-casinos,” Mike Barley, spokesman for Pennsylvanians for Responsible Government, said.

Steve Hoenstine, spokesman for state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17 of Lower Merion, said the senator is concerned about balance.

“Daylin doesn’t oppose gambling or VGTs in and of themselves,” Hoenstine said, “but given that we already have a healthy gambling industry in Pennsylvania, it seems unwise, in light of what happened in Atlantic City, to think that out even more.”

He warned of oversaturation.

“If you go too far and you spread it too thin, it hurts everyone,” Hoenstine said. “We’ve seen what happened there. There was billions of dollars of investment and what’s left? There’s nothing left ... Gambling is a large source of revenue but it is not an unending source of revenue. You can only take so much before the industry collapses.”

State Sen. Tom Killion, R-9 of Middletown, agreed.

“The gaming control board just issued a decision that allows the South Philly casino to move forward,” he said. “Our region is saturated with gaming. We cannot allow the VGT conversation to happen under the false promise of fixing the budget. We need to have a comprehensive gaming policy debate to determine if further expansion of gaming is the right thing to do.”

He also said fixing Pennsylvania’s $2.2 billion deficit shouldn’t depend on people’s addictions.

“For too long we have been trying to close a lingering budget deficit using liquor privatization and expanded gaming,” he said. “It is irresponsible to continue to try and govern by exploiting people’s addictions. The debate about VGTs should not be had in the context of trying to close the state budget, but rather, should be part of a separate debate about the pros and cons of expanded gaming on our region.”

Michael Rader, spokesman for state Sen. Tom McGarrigle, R-26 of Springfield, said McGarrigle has similar thoughts.

“I don’t think the idea of balancing the state budget on addictive products and more gambling, the senator isn’t too keen on,” he said.

For the tavern owners, it’s just a way to level the playing field.

“We’re not asking for these machines to become wealthy,” McArdle said. “We are asking for these machines to survive.”

He said his industry, which employs 100,000 people across the state, has faced mounting pressure.

“Since 2016 when Pennsylvania Legislature enacted Act 39 to modernize alcohol sales in Pennsylvania, our businesses have been devastated,” McArdle said, adding that now beer distributors can sell a single beer, wine-to-go permits have been permitted, pop-up beer gardens appear among others.

“They have modernized every facet of the business except your local taverns and restaurants,” he said. “They have devastated our businesses.”

He said taverns are community supporters, helping to sponsor Little League and football teams, police departments, fire companies and more.

“By opening up gaming, the VGTs to our taverns, I think we can do a lot of good,” Barrar said. “We can save jobs. We can save some of these businesses that are starting to close down.”

To fund the state budget, he said this is the best choice.

“The only other option we have ahead of us is some type of tax increase,” he said.

McArdle implored state senators to hear the tavern owners’ plea.

“You have helped out state casino billionaires, you have helped out national grocery store and convenient store chains, you have helped beer distributors,” he said. “It is now time to help your local tavern and restaurant who has always been there for you.”