Video poker bill squeezes past House
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HARRISBURG -- The state House committee on legalized gambling switched direction yesterday and approved a bill to permit bars, taverns and clubs with state liquor licenses to add video poker machines.
The move pleased state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak but upset Methodist Church official Steve Drachler.
House Bill 1317 is a top priority for Gov. Ed Rendell, who is trying to give tuition relief to students at the 14 community colleges and the 14 state-owned colleges. It now moves to the House floor, but it isn't known when it will come up for discussion.
Mr. Zahorchak, a Rendell appointee, said the committee's 14-12 vote for the bill yesterday is "a major step toward ensuring that hard-working families can afford to send their children to college."
The vote reversed the outcome from a meeting Thursday, when the bill was defeated on a tie vote.
Mr. Rendell expects that if the 14,000 bars, taverns and clubs in the state each add up to five video poker machines, as the bill allows, that could add $550 million in new revenue per year for tuition relief.
But Mr. Drachler, of the United Methodist Witness in Pennsylvania, the advocacy arm of the church, said it looked to him like some committee members "held their noses and voted for the bill to appease their leadership and Gov. Rendell. If the bill gets to the floor, it will be a free-for-all battle. There is no way to legislate this family-killing and neighborhood-killing proposal into something good."
Since he's up against the power of the governor's office, Mr. Drachler said he feels like "David opposing Goliath, but that isn't stopping us. We are committed to opposing and defeating this bill."
The key vote switch yesterday came from Rep. Curtis Thomas, D-Philadelphia.
But Mr. Thomas still wants to make two major changes to the bill on the House floor. He wants to ensure that students at the four state-related universities -- Temple, Pitt, Penn State and Lincoln -- are eligible for the video poker-generated tuition relief.
The governor has advocated limiting the tuition aid to state-owned colleges and community colleges because he contends they've done a better job of controlling tuition increases. But the bill was amended in committee to say that if more than $550 million is generated per year from video poker, students at the state-related schools could be eligible.
Mr. Thomas said students at Lincoln, a historically black university, need tuition relief, as do students from Temple, which is in his Philadelphia district.
Mr. Thomas also wants to put wording in the bill to ensure that there is not just one "sole source provider" for the video poker machines that will be placed in bars. He wants to spread the business around to as many video equipment firms as possible, rather than just having one firm get all the profits.
Under the bill, 50 percent of the video poker revenue would go to the state for tuition relief; 45 percent would be split evenly between the video poker machine suppliers/operators and the bar/tavern/club owner; and the rest would go for administrative expenses.
Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester, an opponent of the bill, said the bill doesn't say where the $25 million in startup costs would come from.
He said money must be provided to state police and local police to check the bars to make sure the video poker machines are being operating properly and that underage youths aren't gambling on them. He said this could be a special problem in college towns.
First Published July 18, 2009 12:00 am