House gives OK on bill to expand gambling in taverns

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HARRISBURG -- The state House of Representatives on Wednesday narrowly approved legislation that would expand gambling -- in the form of raffles, pull tabs and daily drawings -- into Pennsylvania bars and taverns while allowing social and fraternal clubs more control of gaming revenue.

The legislation now returns to the Senate, where the push to extend small games to taverns originated. A spokesman for Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said that while members will need to review amendments made by the House, it appeared any changes were close to what Senate leadership had anticipated.

Gov. Tom Corbett previously had asked for tavern gaming revenue to be directed into the state lottery fund, which pays for programs benefiting seniors, rather than the general fund, but a spokesman said he was satisfied with changes that call for an annual report on the impact it has on lottery funds.

The 102-96 passage was a major victory for bars and taverns, which have lobbied for decades for the ability to offer games of chance. They have argued the combination of gaming and cheap drinks at fraternal clubs lured customers away from their businesses.

"We are extremely excited," said Amy Christie, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage Association. "Our association has worked tirelessly on this effort for 25 years to be able to have small businesses having a more level playing field."

Leaders of VFW and American Legion organizations came to the Capitol, meanwhile, to protest that extending games of chance to taverns would cut into their business.

"There's only so much of a gambling dollar to go around, and now the taverns are going to be getting a piece of that," said Kit Watson, adjutant of the Pennsylvania American Legion.

But he said lawmakers also were working on changes -- some in an accompanying bill, still working its way to the House floor -- that would aid clubs. They would be allowed, for example, to use 40 percent of gaming revenue -- up from the 30 percent under a 2012 law -- for their own operations.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, described the expansion of gaming as a matter of fairness for businesses holding restaurant liquor licenses, but he acknowledged the role of the revenue tavern gaming -- which would be taxed at 60 percent to the state and 5 percent to host municipalities -- would generate. The governor's budget office estimates $156 million a year for the general fund.

"The taverns made I think a very cogent, narrowly tailored position that we as small business owners ought to have the same opportunities that service organizations have, even though ours will be narrower, because we're competing in some ways," Mr. Turzai said. "That was the driving argument. That's what brought the issue to the table. I do think that the fact it had a positive impact on the budget was an additional positive."

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has serious concerns about the bill, said executive director Richard Long, because it directs no money to enforcement of gaming laws or criminal activity that results from gambling.

Individual prize limits for tavern games would be $2,000 per chance, while licensees could offer no more than $35,000 in total prizes in a week.

Ms. Christie estimated about 2,500 of 6,000 eligible businesses will seek a gaming license.

Karen Langley: or 717-787-2141.

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