Senate panel OKs table games bill
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HARRISBURG -- As the state Legislature appeared to be on the verge of an agreement on a long-delayed budget, the state Senate was trying to forge a compromise on a bill to allow table games at the state's casinos.
The compromise likely will result in higher fee and taxes than the casino owners want but lower than the state House has proposed.
The legislation, called Senate Bill 1033, was approved by a Senate committee yesterday with a $15 million fee and a 14 percent tax on table games. It is expected to be voted on by the full Senate today, as is the budget bill.
Legislative leaders said they expected that a $27.8 billion budget would be approved and sent to Gov. Ed Rendell by tonight.
"We have to act quickly on this, because the new state budget includes about $200 million from table games revenue," said Sen. Jane Earll, R-Erie.
But before the table games bill can move forward, the Senate will have to reach a compromise with the state House, which has a different bill on table games, Senate Bill 711. It puts a 34 percent tax on revenue from table games and would require casinos to pay an upfront, one-time fee of $20 million.
Senate Bill 1033 is sponsored by Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks, whose district includes the Philadelphia Park racetrack/casino. He said the proposed 14 percent tax rate is a compromise. Some legislators have favored a 12 percent rate, some an 18 percent rate and some a 34 percent rate.
Of the 14 percent in tax revenue, Mr. Tomlinson said that 12 percent would go into state coffers and the other 2 percent would be split between the host town and county where the casino is located.
The size of the license fee in his bill is also a compromise. Casino officials don't want more than a $10 million fee, while some legislators have pushed for a $20 million fee.
The proposed state budget for fiscal 2009-10, which began July 1, includes $200 million in new revenue from table games. Most of that will come from the upfront license fees. With nine casinos open now, and a 10th, SugarHouse in Philadelphia, to have its first phase open by next spring, that would be $150 million in license fees. Another $50 million is expected in table game tax revenue.
Mr. Tomlinson's bill would let each racetrack/casino and each stand-alone casino have up to 250 table games, such as poker, blackjack, roulette and dice. A 2004 state law authorizes up to seven racetrack casinos and five stand-alones in Pennsylvania, and each of the stand-alones can have up to 5,000 slots.
The law also legalized two smaller "resort hotel" casinos, which can have up to 500 slots. Mr. Tomlinson's bill would authorize each of these smaller casinos also to have up to 25 table games. Their one-time license fee would be $7.5 million and their tax rate also would be 14 percent.
Some legislators wanted to triple the number of slots the resort hotel casinos could have -- up to 1,500. But Mr. Tomlinson's bill keeps it at 500. He is hoping to head off a lawsuit threatened by the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and others, aimed at stopping resort hotel casinos from getting 1,500 slots.
Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, criticized the idea of letting the resort hotel casinos have table games. He said the Rivers already is struggling, and if resort hotel casinos get table games it could hurt full casinos even more. One candidate for a resort hotel casino license could be Nemacolin Woodlands in Fayette County.
Mr. Tomlinson said that since his bill prevents resort hotel casinos from tripling their number of slots, letting them have a few table games was a compromise.
There is another difference between the House and Senate bills on table games. The House has combined two ideas -- "reforms" to the 2004 gaming law and table games -- into one piece of legislation, Senate Bill 711. The Senate has separate bills for those two ideas, Senate Bill 1033 for table games and Senate Bill 1088 for gaming reform.
The two chambers must agree on whether to use one bill or two bills before anything can move forward.
Stephen Drachler of A United Methodist Witness in Pennsylvania said he still strongly opposes table games, but does think the Senate's approach to gaming reform, putting it into a separate bill, is better than the House approach of combining the two issues.
First Published October 9, 2009 12:07 am