House panel wants to close 'sweepstakes' cafes

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HARRISBURG -- State lawmakers want to close what they say is another loophole in Pennsylvania's gambling law, one that has allowed businesses to offer "sweepstakes" contests that mimic casino games.

The House Gambling Oversight Committee this morning unanimously approved a measure to prohibit the creation of these so-called internet sweepstakes cafes.

The businesses sell pre-paid long-distance phone cards or vouchers for internet time that customers can then use to play virtual games on terminals there to win cash. Offering games such as video poker, many of the options are identical to those offered at nearby casinos.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, said the establishments are unregulated, giving problem gamblers another option to feed their addiction and potentially reducing the revenue from the state's legitimate casinos.

Such storefront gambling cafes have popped up in Western Pennsylvania this year. Mr. Vulakovich declined to give the name of one whose ad he showed the panel, but noted its black-and-gold, Steelers-style motif.

Reports earlier this year by KDKA-TV noted the presence of sweepstakes gambling cafes in Monroeville, McKees Rocks and East Liberty.

Committee Chairman Curt Schroder, R-Chester, said the issue was brought to his attention when the panel visited casinos operating in Western Pennsyvlania. He visited one sweepstakes caf??, where he purchased a card and later redeemed his points just as he would have at a casino, he said.

"For the user, there was no difference I could see between playing these games or those in the casinos we visited," Mr. Schroder said.

The measure now awaits consideration by the state House of Representatives.


Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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