Brian O'Neill: Why keep video poker machines quasi-illegal?
March 10, 2016 12:00 AM
Bart Boatwright/Associated Press
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Yet another Pennsylvania lawmaker is under indictment, this one for allegedly helping a buddy push his illegal video poker machines on Mon Valley restaurant owners, but I’d like to interrupt the traditional tsk-tsking to ask this question.
Why are video poker machines still illegal outside of casinos?
Understand, please, this is no defense of state Rep. Mark Gergely, the White Oak Democrat now charged with conspiracy, gambling and dealing in the proceeds of illegal activity. He’ll have his preliminary hearing March 30, and nothing I say here is meant to help him.
But if you’ve never been in a tavern with a video poker machine, you haven’t gone out much. Paying the winners is officially prohibited, but universally expected. Without that rampant hypocrisy, no Pennsylvania lawmaker could act the two-bit influence peddler in any tavern because no tavern owner would need him.
Veterans groups and lawmakers have been seeking the legalization of video poker in taverns and clubs at least since the 1990s. The casinos have sought to protect their legal-gambling monopoly since the first ones opened nearly a decade ago, but they’re doing quite well even with illegal video poker payoffs occurring in countless bars across the commonwealth. So why not legalize them and let the state get a cut of the proceeds?
Some Western Pennsylvania lawmakers are hoping to do exactly that. State Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon, sponsored an amendment to a gaming bill that narrowly passed the House last December, 96-93. It would allow licensed liquor establishments to offer video poker payoffs legally, freeing Pennsylvania cops from ever again making like Claude Rains in “Casablanca’’ and playacting shock to find gambling going on in the local bar.
State Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, has been pushing this change for years. As a kid growing up in East Liberty in the 1960s, he remembers adults playing the numbers, with the winner determined by the last three digits of the closing stock market results in the newspaper. The illegal game faded out when the Pennsylvania Lottery premiered in 1972 and the revenue shifted from the racketeers to seniors programs.
Mr. Costa, 56, says he’s been on this quest more than a decade, but former Gov. Ed Rendell asked him to back off until after the casinos opened. He did, and Mr. Rendell became an ally in his second term, though the plan died after the governor said he wanted just one vendor for the entire state.
Now the idea is back. In the years since, Illinois has essentially run a pilot program for Pennsylvania. Almost two decades after it offered riverboat gambling, Illinois legalized video gaming and the first machine was played in October 2012. Though Chicago still bans the games, as do many towns in its metro area, Illinois had gaming in more than 5,000 bars, clubs and truck stops last year, each with up to five machines. The 22,000-plus machines took $11.3 billion in bets.
After machine payouts and the cuts taken by the vendors and establishments, the state treasury reaped more than $228 million in 2015 — up more than 38 percent from the year before. Illinois municipalities took in nearly $46 million.
Illinois would make any short list of states most like Pennsylvania. Its video poker machines are taking in hundreds of millions without its largest city, which makes up about 21 percent of its population. That’s a far bigger cut than would be Philadelphia and Pittsburgh combined, though I don’t know why any Pennsylvania city would want to miss this party.
With this state’s chronic money woes, Mr. Costa hopes finding a huge new source of revenue in “something that’s already going on’’ will make sense to enough of his fellow lawmakers. His ally across the aisle, Mr. Mustio, said the charges against Mr. Gergely points to the extent of the illegal activity.
With tens of thousands of these machines already paying off in the commonwealth, Mr. Mustio said, “let’s get revenue from them.” The casinos have a lot of leverage in Harrisburg, but he’d much rather see profits go to (or stay with) struggling local tavern owners and fraternal organizations than to out-of-state casino owners.
A state that has contemplated raising the sales and income taxes should first be sure it isn’t bypassing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue there for the taking. Legalizing video poker would not change the culture. It would recognize existing bar culture.
Of course, an idea making sense has never ensured victory in Harrisburg.
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.
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