Prospects dimming for behind-the-scenes push to expand video gaming in Pa.

A clash of deep-pocketed lobbying interests and concerns from some rank-and-file Republican lawmakers might stall the effort, though it will probably return in the fall.

  • Angela Couloumbis/Spotlight PA
  • Brad Bumsted/The Caucus

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HARRISBURG — Despite intense lobbying in recent days, prospects are dimming for top Republican senators to push through a controversial proposal to vastly expand gambling in Pennsylvania before lawmakers leave the Capitol for a summer of campaigning.

The behind-the-scenes effort took shape last week, led by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and lobbyists for deep-pocketed video gaming companies, many from out of state, that have poured thousands of dollars into Scarnati’s campaign and those of other GOP leaders.

This week, Republicans who control the Senate have met behind closed doors for hours to hash out details of the plan, which calls for allowing video gaming terminals, or VGTs, in thousands of bars, taverns, social clubs, and other establishments with a liquor license.

But since Spotlight PA and The Caucus first reported on the effort, opposition has been mounting. Some rank-and-file Republicans object to the timing of the push given the massive challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as widespread protests for more police oversight.

The state’s casinos fear the expansion could further cannibalize gaming revenue, and the makers and distributors of games of skill, which would be regulated and taxed for the first time as part of the measure under discussion, are also strongly opposed.

In an interview Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said he was championing the effort not as a push for expanding gambling, but as a way to gain control over the thousands of skill game terminals that are operating with no oversight, including at retail locations where kids have access to playing them.

“They are everywhere and they are completely unregulated, and I think it’s time to bring them into the light of day,” Corman said.

Asked why he is also pushing for potentially thousands of new VGTs, which are currently only allowed at truck stops, Corman said he did not think it would be fair to legalize games of skill but continue to restrict where VGTs can be placed.

“It’s hard for me to say, you can exist, but you cannot,” Corman said, adding that VGTs and games of skill under his proposal could compete on an even playing field.

Corman said the measure could raise up to $250 million annually, which could initially prop up state coffers but eventually be redirected toward freezing property taxes for seniors.

Though Corman did not appear to have enough votes among Republicans to move the bill as of late Tuesday, GOP leaders were still whipping votes and trying to court Democrats.

Senate Republican leaders said they are still hoping for a vote this week, but they are working against the clock: The legislature will break for the summer later this month, and will not return until September. That leaves little time to strike deals on an issue like gambling that has historically been a heavy lift in Pennsylvania.

Some rank-and-file legislators objected to the effort and questioned its timing.

“The timing to me is just wrong,” said Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson (R., Bucks), one of the architects of the state’s original gambling law and an outspoken critic of games of skill being allowed to operate without oversight or repercussion.

“I believe that we’ve expanded gaming enough and that we should just eliminate [games of skill] and not make them legal — we are rewarding bad behavior,” he added.

For his part, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signaled that he believes Pennsylvania is reaching saturation when it comes to gambling.

“There are a multitude of legal gaming options already available for Pennsylvanians to play, including lottery, ilottery, slot machines, table games, sports gaming, internet gaming, fantasy sports, etc.,” a spokesperson for Wolf, Lyndsay Kensinger, said. “Any new gaming dollars will siphon existing gaming revenue streams that benefit Pennsylvanians, like the lottery fund and property tax relief fund.”

Should Republicans fail to gain enough support for the bill, their efforts will probably continue into the fall.

“I would not be shocked if they [leaders] revisit it if they can find another way to fashion it,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

According to a draft copy of the bill, VGTs would be allowed at the majority of nearly 15,000 establishments that have a liquor license. Each establishment could have up to five machines. Though counties and municipalities would have the ability to opt-out of allowing VGTs within their borders, the state could potentially see an influx of 50,000 or more VGTs.

Games of skill, which are currently in thousands of retail and other establishments, according to state estimates, would be regulated and taxed. Though skill-games companies have said they would welcome regulation, some have opposed the Republican-backed measure.

Mike Barley — a lobbyist for Long & Nyquist, which represents Pace-O-Matic, the company that runs many of the skill games — said the bill under discussion “was a false choice.”

“We can’t compete against VGTs,” Barley said.

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