ince most of the 104 House Democrats, joined by a handful of Republicans, are expected to support the bill, it's likely to be sent to Governor Ed Rendell for signature by Friday. That will allow Rendell to avoid having to lay off 1,000 or so state employees in order to balance the 2009-10 budget.
The bill authorizes two "resort hotel casinos," which can each have up to 600 slot machines and 50 table games. One resort casino license has already been awarded, to a convention center in Valley Forge. Once the bill becomes law, would-be applicants for the second license will have 90 days to apply to the state Gaming Control Board.
Those applicants will likely include Nemacolin Woodlands in Fayette County and a convention center hotel south of Gettysburg. Two other would-be resort casinos, one near Reading and one in the Poconos, have already applied for that license. Some legislators wanted the bill to create a third resort casino license, but that won't happen until 2017.
Supporters say the bill will provide us$ 250 million to balance the state's us$ 27.8 billion budget for fiscal 2009-10 without a general tax increase, as well as avoiding the need to cut costs by furloughing 1,000 state workers this month.
The major opposition to expanded gambling is coming from House Republicans, who complain that they haven't had enough time to study the complicated, 228-page measure. They are expected to engage in lengthy debate when the House takes up the bill tonight.
Senate supporters said the bill has been extensively debated in recent months, both at the Capitol and in many news reports, and was ready for a vote.
Republicans complained that the bill contains "earmarks," also known as "walking around money," or special grants for counties and municipalities that have casinos within their borders. "There was no public input as to where this money would be directed, and House Democrats kept Republicans out of almost all discussions about the bill," said Steve Miskin, aide to House GOP leader Sam Smith.
Brett Marcy, aide to House Democratic leader Todd Eachus, denied that, saying all four legislative caucuses had a chance for input. As for "earmarks," 1 % of the new table games tax revenue from the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh will go to the city and another 1 percent goes to Allegheny County. All of the city revenue will be used for the Carnegie Library system, while 85 % of the county's share will go for suburban libraries. The other 15 % will go for a tourist promotion agency in Monroeville.
In Erie, the table games tax revenue from the Presque Isle Downs casino will go to build a community college. In Washington County, tax revenue from table games at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino will go to county economic development agencies and for North Strabane.
Senator Jane Orie said this tax revenue should have gone to lowering property taxes statewide or to easing municipal pension problems in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Discussions on whether to add a third resort casino license have delayed the bill for weeks. Another problem has been how Philadelphia's local share of table games tax revenue would be spent.
Legislators decided to let Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council decide on that. Some legislators reportedly wanted a say in how the new revenue would be spent. Philadelphia has no casinos now, but the SugarHouse casino should be operating later this year, with another one, Foxwoods, is expected to open by late 2012. Both casinos have faced strong opposition from Philadelphia anti-casino groups.
Orie said she didn't like lumping reform of gaming issues and table games into the same bill. The Senate's original bill dealt only with the reforms. House Republicans also don't like a provision of the bill that allows casinos to give interest-free credit to gamblers. Republican Curt Schroder said that could just cause additional problems for gambling addicts by making it easier for them to borrow money and rack up larger gambling debts.
Schroder also complained that the revised bill doesn't give Attorney General Tom Corbett or state police jurisdiction over background investigations of would-be casino owners. House Republicans want to take that power away from the Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement, which is under the state Gaming Control Board.
Schroder also said gaming in Pennsylvania shouldn't be expanded while Corbett is doing grand jury investigations into how the gaming board awarded licenses to the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and the Mount Airy Casino in the Poconos.
The bill also establishes a us$ 16.5 million one-time fee for larger casinos (those at racetracks and those that stand alone) and a us$ 7.5 million fee for resort casinos. It also establishes a 16 % tax on table games, with 14 % going to the state and 2 % to the host locality. After two years, the state tax drops to 12 %. The state share goes into the Rainy Day Fund (for emergencies) until it reaches us$ 750 million, and then it goes for property tax relief.
Besides, it allots us$ 3 million a year for compulsive gambling and drug/alcohol treatment and limits outside employment of gaming board members to 15 % of their board salary (us$ 145,000 a year for six members and us$ 150,000 a year for the chairman). Orie said all outside employment of board members should have been banned. It also allows casinos to have poker tournaments.