Pennsylvania bill to expand gambling clears Senate

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HARRISBURG -- Legislation allowing bars and taverns to host raffles and other games of chance moved quickly Wednesday, clearing the Senate and being positioned for the House floor before leaders there put off the vote.

For years, restaurants and bars have pushed for the ability to hold games of chance like those through which private clubs like VFW posts generate money for charity and -- under a recent change -- for operations. The proposal that moved in the Capitol on Wednesday would allow bars and restaurants with liquor licenses to host pull-tabs and daily drawings with revenue split between the establishment and the state, as well as 50-50 raffles from which half the proceeds would go to charity.

The proposal appeared headed for a House vote on passage in the afternoon, as Republicans voted the bill through committee over protests by Democrats that the version before them contained significant drafting errors. But Republican leaders opted against calling the bill -- a spokesman said members wanted more time to review changes made Tuesday in a Senate committee -- before legislators left the Capitol for nearly three weeks.

Amy Christie, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars and restaurants, applauded the 39-11 Senate vote and said her group will be looking for House action in November. She said the legislation would allow mom and pop businesses to host benefits for charity.

"It allows us to continue to donate to charity, continue to help our people, and makes it so we're not going to get in trouble for doing it," she said.

The Pennsylvania Federation of Fraternal and Social Organizations --which represents VFW local posts, Elks clubs and fire companies -- opposes the bill. Ted Mowatt, the executive director, said the federation believes small games of chance should be preserved as a not-for-profit fundraising mechanism.

"We have for many years opposed the taverns and any for-profit companies getting into small games of chance," Mr. Mowatt said. "It dilutes the product and dilutes the purpose and original premise of the small games of chance as a charity event."

Both the licensed beverage association and the governor's office estimate that about 2,000 establishments would receive tavern gaming licenses.

The governor's budget office estimates the proposal would generate $156 million in annual tax revenues.

The legislation would limit individual prizes to $2,000 and total weekly prizes to $35,000. Tavern raffles could be held once a month. Revenue from tavern games would be subject to a 60 percent state tax. In the case of 50-50 raffles, half the proceeds would go to charity while the remaining revenue would be taxed at the 60 percent rate.

Gov. Tom Corbett supports the proposal but wants the state revenue directed to the lottery fund, which supports programs for seniors, rather than the general fund, where it would be directed under the bill.

The Senate vote cut across party lines, with 21 Democrats and 18 Republicans in support. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, described the legislation as an "equity issue for bars and taverns" who wish to offer the same contests as private clubs.

On Tuesday afternoon, a Senate committee voted down several amendments offered by Democrats to steer proceeds from the games into the state lottery fund, rather than the general fund.

In the lottery fund, Mr. Costa said, the money could be directed to initiatives such as freezing property taxes for seniors.

Karen Langley: or 717-787-2141. Kate Giammarise contributed.

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