While the Senate bill allowed for expansions including online gambling, it is wildly different than the House proposal. The Senate opted for high taxes and limited expansion. The House measure includes VGTs, online lottery, and daily fantasy sports (DFS). Additionally, it features much lower tax rates.
VGTs are the sticking point
The two bills are vastly different, yes. However, the Senate and House allegedly are finding compromises on everything but VGTs. This is not surprising given how much the House itself bickered over the measure. During debate on the bill, virtually every Representative speaking against the bill spoke against VGTs.
Additionally, Sands Bethlehem owner Sheldon Adelson launched a $1 million ad campaign against VGTs.
Since the campaign launched, there has been no movement on the bill. The gossip out of Harrisburg is that the two groups cannot reach an agreeement on VGTs. In the meantime, they also have a bigger fish to fry: balancing the budget.
Lawmakers duking it out in the press
McIlhinney speaks for the Senators
Most of the VGT talk is off the record or gossip. However, two politicians recently went on the record in The Intelligencer with a pair of op-eds.
First, Sen. Chuck McIlhinney chimed in, responding to an op-ed from a reader in opposition of VGTs. In the op-ed (paywall), McIlhinney observed:
“There are better ways to reach an accord on the state budget that are responsible for today and tomorrow. If we do not work to achieve them, the same issues will arise again next year, the year after that, and forever.
In fact, I, too, am perplexed by self-described conservative leaders like Speaker of the House Turzai promoting this avalanche of gambling machines into every nook and cranny of our communities. That is why I will continue to oppose shortsighted budget gimmicks and work toward compromise-based, long-term solutions.”
Mustio responds for the House
Speaker Turzai is not currying favor with many people. He tried to organize the House to pass a budget fix that did not include any tax hikes. The group was not able to get a measure through though.
The Senate, meanwhile, passed a budget fix that the House needs to improve. That fix includes $200 million for gambling expansion, which means the Senate hopes to pass something with online casinos this year. It is now up to the House to approve the budget, which they might not do without the promise of VGTs.
Consider Rep. Mark Mustio’s response editorial to McIlhinney’s letter to the editor:
“What’s most important to keep in mind is that thousands of illegal VGTs are here in Pennsylvania right now. They are being operated out of locations with no regulation, no oversight and no money back to local and state governments. It is morally and fiscally irresponsible for our legislators to not, at the very least, regulate this existing industry. When you consider that regulation would deliver local share back to all 67 counties, plus provide substantial funds dedicated to help problem gaming, you must really begin to wonder about the political motives at play here.”
Mustio estimated up to $400 million annually could come from VGTs alone. What he does not address though is any potential loss in Pennsylvania casino revenue and, in turn, casino tax revenue would come from the implementation of VGTs.