HARRISBURG -- The state Senate met on an unusual day, at an unusual time and voted with unusual speed yesterday, as it unanimously approved some significant changes to the state's slot machine law and put new registration and reporting requirements on state government lobbyists.
The Senate, stung by criticism of what leaders said were clerical errors in the two bills during a session late Monday and early Tuesday, took only 90 minutes at a rare Friday session to give final approval to the two measures and send them to Gov. Ed Rendell to sign. He's expected to do so next week.
The session started at the very early hour of noon and was over by 1:30 p.m., sharply contrasting with many of the Senate's hours-long political caucuses, held in secret, followed by voting going well past midnight.
Senate Bill 862, which made two dozen amendments to Act 71 of 2004, "will bring much needed changes to the state's slots law," said Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless. "The [unanimous] vote shows bipartisan commitment to reform of gaming."
The changes she's most happy about are the elimination of middlemen called slots suppliers, who were to buy slots from manufacturers and resell them, at a markup, to casinos; a change that permits municipalities and counties to impose smoking bans at a casino; and a measure that permits municipalities, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to use local zoning ordinances to determine the best location for a casino.
The special Friday session was required because the Senate had erroneously omitted just two words from the slots bill it had approved early Tuesday.
But they were important words -- "racetrack applicants," which had been omitted from a list of people who are banned from making political contributions. Such donations also cannot be made by casino owners and applicants for slots licenses, slots manufacturers and current racetrack license holders.
State House members criticized the Senate, saying its gaffe could have permitted officials of the two groups competing to build the final harness racing track in Western Pennsylvania to make contributions to state and local politicians.
Legislators were eager to get the slots bill and the lobbyist registration bill approved before the Nov. 7 election because of the public pounding many legislators have taken over the now-rescinded July 2005 pay raise. Some who criticized the pay raise also chided the Legislature for its inability to deal with other major issues.
Other important changes to the slots law are:
Banning state officials from owning up to 1 percent of a casino or gambling company, as was authorized by the original law.
Barring a casino, for its first 21/2 years of operation, from buying more than 50 percent of its slot machines from a single manufacturer. This was aimed at preventing the nation's largest slots maker, International Game Technology, from dominating the market in Pennsylvania, at least initially.
Giving state Attorney General Tom Corbett full power to investigate claims of wrongdoing at casinos. Previously, the district attorney of the home county had most of the investigatory power.
Mr. Rendell praised this change, saying it "sends a strong message to would-be criminals and will help make Pennsylvania's gaming industry corruption-proof. We will not tolerate any nefarious players in our gaming industry."
Mr. Rendell has strongly supported bringing slots to Pennsylvania, and is hoping to generate $1 billion in new revenue, once all 14 casinos are up and running, to use to lower property taxes.
Initially, the slots amendments took away zoning power and smoking-ban authority from local officials around the state.
Pittsburgh officials heralded the restoration of zoning power as a victory for the city and those who potentially could be affected by the location of the casino in the lower Hill District, Station Square or the North Shore.
It will help the city regulate issues relating to the proposed casino design, traffic impact and other zoning-related matters, a right won in a 2005 state Supreme Court ruling on the law that legalized slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania.
Ron Porter, co-chairman of the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force, said, "I believe the strong reaction from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had an impact on the state legislators and it seemed to me the wisdom of keeping zoning control local outweighed any kind of logic in having Harrisburg people impose their will on cities."
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called the restoration of local zoning power "encouraging."
"To lose that control on the local level would have been detrimental to ... our ability to protect the integrity of the neighborhoods and protect the integrity of the casino design," he said.
City Councilman William Peduto said allowing the city to have zoning control will help to "lessen the impact of any location, whether it's a visual impact ... or impacts created by traffic."
As for the lobbyist bill, three technical changes had to be made to correct mistakes made Monday night when the final version of the bill was being printed.
It will replace a previous lobbyist law that was passed in 1998 but tossed out by the state Supreme Court in late 2002.
It requires lobbyists who try to influence legislators on behalf of various special interests to register yearly with the state and report their spending every quarter.
If a lobbyist gives on legislator at least $250 in gifts in a year, the lawmaker's name must be reported. Likewise, if a lobbyist spends at least $650 a year on wining, dining, travel, lodging or entertainment for a legislator, that also must be reported.
Staff Writer Mark Belko contributed. Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254.