Pa. House gives final OK for casino table games

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s slots casinos hit the jackpot Wednesday when the Legislature gave them the authority to install table games such as poker and blackjack.

A 103-89 House vote sent the bill to Gov. Ed Rendell, whose staff said he would sign it, likely on Thursday.

Larger casinos will be allowed 250 tables for the new games, while the smaller resorts casinos can have 50. State gambling regulators said it may be more than six months before table games are up and running.

Along with poker and blackjack, games such as craps, baccarat and roulette are permitted under the new law.

Rendell and lawmakers turned to table games for revenue to help settle last year’s protracted budget stalemate, but even after the 101-day impasse ended in October, the gambling details had remained unresolved.

The extra money will help pay the state’s bills as the recession continues to ravage its tax collections.

“We should be proud of this legislation and the jobs and economic development and budget resolution that it provides,” said state Rep. Dante Santoni, D-Berks, who shepherded the bill through the House.

The bill had much more support among Democrats than Republicans. In the House, which is fairly evenly divided along partisan lines, only 12 Republicans voted for it and just 10 Democrats voted no.

Critics called the expansion of the 5-year-old slots gambling law fatally flawed and said that bolstered ethics rules for casino and Gaming Control Board employees were insufficient. They also said the bill should not have earmarked funding for certain pet projects.

“Just because particular interests (have) a sugar daddy or sugar mommy who happens to have a casino in their district, they will now get funding, into perpetuity by the way, not to be reviewed by the General Assembly each and every year,” said Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester, who voted against it.

The bill’s passage averted the layoffs of nearly 1,000 state workers that Rendell had threatened.

The bill authorized a third resort casino license in 2017.

Table games will be taxed at 16 percent of gross revenue, with 2 percentage points going to local counties and municipalities. At the end of the second year, the gross tax rate will drop to 14 percent.

Larger casinos will have to pay a $16.5 million licensing fee, but resort casinos will only be charged $7.5 million. The amount of those fees will increase after June 1.

Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, a leading gambling opponent, said the fees were far too small. He was one of several who argued that the licenses should have gone to the highest bidders.

“Nothing like corporate welfare to fatten the wallets of those who already have secured great benefits through this casino gambling law,” Clymer said.

The Gaming Control Board immediately issued a statement saying draft regulations are in the works and that it will have to vet thousands of new employees expected to be hired.

Kevin O’Toole, the board’s executive director, said it was probable that all nine currently operating Pennsylvania casinos will petition for the right to have table games.

“Just common sense would indicate that from a competitive standpoint they will feel the need to offer table games to their customers,” O’Toole said.

Also Wednesday, Mason-Dixon Resort & Casino announced it would apply for a resort casino license to be located near the Maryland line just south of Gettysburg.