HARRISBURG -- When federal officials rejected the state's bid to put tolls on Interstate 80, Gov. Ed Rendell urged state lawmakers to come up with new ways to fund improvements in highways, bridges and transit.
State Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, took up the challenge and has a possible answer -- legalizing thousands of video poker and other gambling devices for bars, taverns and restaurants around the state.
Mr. Costa said Wednesday he is drafting legislation to allow each bar, tavern and restaurant in Pennsylvania to have "three or four" video gambling devices for poker, keno or other games. After winners are paid, the bar or tavern owner would get a slice of the revenue, and then the gross tax revenue from the games would be split between the state and the host municipality.
The size of the tax to be imposed on the amusement-tax revenue hasn't been determined yet. But Mr. Costa said the state's share of video poker revenue should go into the state General Fund.
Once the thousands of bars and taverns have video poker, he said his idea could produce enough new revenue to free up the $533 million spent annually for state police from the Motor License Fund.
That fund is fueled by the state's 31-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and vehicle and drivers license registration fees. By using the General Fund to pay for state police operations, the state could use the Motor License Fund as it was intended -- providing $533 million a year for repairing roads and bridges and for operating the Port Authority of Allegheny County, SEPTA in the Philadelphia area and smaller mass transit systems, Mr. Costa said.
Mr. Costa said his idea is preferable to other ideas for road revenue, such as an increase in the gasoline tax.
He has proposed legalizing video games in bars before -- once in 2004 and again last year, when table games were being added to state slots casinos, but the idea didn't go anywhere. He thinks his time may have come now, in the wake of the federal government rejecting the idea of putting tolls on I-80. That rejection has produced a $472 million hole in state funding for transportation improvements.
The video poker idea almost certainly will face strong opposition from the nine (soon to be 10) slots casinos in the state because it will take away their uniqueness as gaming locations. David LaTorre, spokesman for The Meadows racetrack/casino in Washington County, didn't want to comment until he has seen the specifics of the video poker legislation, but he did say, "We will give this a careful review."
Some state legislators say that it is well known that many bars and taverns already have video games marked "for amusement only," which are being used illegally as gambling devices. So, they maintained, the Costa bill would just legalize what is already going on in many areas of the state.
Mr. Rendell has said he'll soon call the Legislature back into special session, possibly by late April, to pass legislation to fund transportation improvements. Mr. Costa said he's now working out the specifics of his bill and will introduce it when that session starts.
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254.