Changes by Pa. House could sink bill to replace towns' casino tax revenues
October 27, 2016 11:47 PM
Bart Boatwright/Associated Press
The Senate passed a bill that would've temporarily kept casino tax revenue flowing to their host communities, but a House amendment to that bill makes passage this year unlikely.
Steve Klaver/Associated Press
The move by the Pennsylvania House could leave host communities for casinos statewide scrambling to replace the money they had been getting from slot machine taxes.
By Karen Langley and Caitlin McCabe / Harrrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania towns that depend on millions of dollars in casino taxes were plunged into new uncertainty Thursday, when legislators failed to approve a plan to replace funding that will be stripped from them by a Supreme Court ruling last month.
After getting a proposal from the Senate to temporarily continue the payments from casinos to their host communities, a House committee added a provision authorizing internet gambling and fantasy sports regulation. But the Senate signaled it wouldn’t consider the amended plan.
“We did what we did on gaming — and I think that’s all we plan on doing for the rest of the year,” said Drew Crompton, a lawyer for Senate Republicans.
The developments mean the Legislature will possibly recess for the year — lawmakers left town with no more voting days expected — without resolving how it will raise the $100 million in new gambling revenue it promised as part of this summer’s budget deal. And it could leave host communities for casinos statewide scrambling to replace the money they had been getting from slot machine taxes.
Under a 2004 law, most casinos outside of Philadelphia must pay a portion of their slot machine revenues to the counties and municipalities that host them: 2 percent to counties, and an additional 2 percent or $10 million — whichever is greater — to municipalities.
But after Mount Airy Casino Resort, a smaller casino, challenged the $10 million fee as unconstitutional for imposing an uneven tax rate, the Supreme Court agreed, and gave legislators 120 days to find remedies.
In Bucks County, state Rep. Tommy Tomlinson said Thursday evening that a private deal was close with the Parx Casino to keep money flowing — both the $7 million the county gets and $10 million that goes to Bensalem.
“Ten million dollars to any municipal budget? ... That’s a big hit if they lose that,” Bucks County Commissioner Chairman Robert Loughery said.
Kevin Acklin, chief of staff for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, said he was disappointed the Legislature had been unable to advance the restoration of the local share, and that the city would pursue an agreement with Rivers Casino.
“At this point, we have no other choice but to reach a definitive $10 million annual contribution agreement with Rivers Casino to make up the shortfall, or we risk our 2017 budget facing significant cuts to public safety and other city services,” Mr. Acklin said.
In Delaware County, home to Harrah’s in Chester, officials said they were optimistic a deal could be worked out in Harrisburg.
The loss of millions of dollars in casino revenue to the financially distressed city could be devastating. In 2015, according to financial records provided by a consulting firm, Chester received nearly $12 million from Harrah’s — equal to 27 percent of its $43 million budget.
“The city can’t afford to lose even a penny there,” Delaware County Council Chairman Mario Civera said.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, defended the legislators’ actions Thursday, saying amending the bill was critical to resolve the gambling revenue plank in the budget.
“We made the decision this morning that is in line with what we’ve been saying for over a month: that the House had support for a gaming bill that fixed the local-share issue and got us to the budgetary commitment of $100 million,” he said.
The House passed the bill, 108-71.
Mr. Crompton said the Senate was still prepared to address the gambling revenue pledge, but not until the new session begins in January.
“We hope that come next year we’ll have some renewed energy in order to find the $100 million that we still know is pledged for the ’16-17 year,” he said.
The final scheduled voting day of the two-year session also saw other last-minute measures fail to cross the finish line, at least for now.
The House declined to take up a bill that would place limits on tethering dogs and require animals in certain abuse and neglect cases to be forfeited to an organization that works to prevent cruelty to animals.
Sen. Rich Alloway, R-Franklin, an advocate for the bill, posted on Twitter that the proposal had not made it but added: “back in 2017” with “renewed vigor.”
Kristen Tullo, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said she hopes the bill is approved in November.
The House also stopped short of a final vote on a bill, pushed by Philadelphia Republican Martina White, that would have penalized Philadelphia and other so-called “sanctuary cities” that declare they will not assist federal immigration authorities on non-criminal matters.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has called the proposal dangerous. The Senate had amended the bill, and House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said members had questions about the changes.
Both chambers are scheduled to return in mid-November for leadership elections, though there are no promises of votes on unfinished legislation. Any bills that have not passed both chambers by Nov. 30 die and would have to begin the legislative process again.
“We haven’t had any conversations about voting in November,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre. “We worked well into this morning to try to finish everything that we could.”
Staff writer Mark Belko of the Post-Gazette contributed. firstname.lastname@example.org, 717-787-2141, @karen_langley.
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