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Legislators push for bigger prizes to aid nonprofits

HARRISBURG -- A bill to expand prizes in small games of chance at clubs and fire halls was shelved when other gambling proposals took center stage in the Legislature.

Now, a bipartisan group of legislators is trying to revive House Bill 169, intended to help struggling nonprofit organizations by boosting prizes for drawings and raffles. Small games of chance, including punch boards, were legalized in the 1980s when the Legislature overrode a veto by the late Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey.

"Hopefully, we'll get this moving," said Rep. Tim Solobay, D-Washington County, the bill's sponsor. He is Canonsburg's fire chief.

The bill was set for House consideration last April. But it was removed from the calendar and sent to the House Appropriations Committee. Gov. Ed Rendell's proposal to legalize video poker in taverns and clubs got most of the attention before it fell flat. Then, in the midst of last year's budget impasse, an unsuccessful proposal to tax small games of chance emerged. Last fall, both chambers were absorbed in approving table games at casinos.

All of that contributed to slowing down House Bill 169, Solobay said.

"Everybody was nervous about having two gambling proposals on the floor at the same time," he said.

Solobay and Republican Rep. Sheryl Delozier on Friday urged House leaders to move forward with the small games bill.

"Our community groups are struggling to meet their expenses and fund projects and services throughout our local communities," Delozier said. "This legislation has bipartisan support."

"We are continuing to review the bill," said Brett Marcy, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne County. "This is a complex issue that requires thoughtful deliberations by our caucus."

Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, is finalizing another bill that would expand small games of chance prizes for nonprofits and legalize small games in taverns. DePasquale said his proposal would tax such games in taverns but not in clubs and social halls.

But some American Legion members with whom she has talked are leery of allowing small games in taverns, Delozier said.

Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Reading, is a co-sponsor of Solobay's bill. He said he would sign on to DePasquale's bill, in an effort to get something moving. Many clubs "are in terrible shape," Caltagirone said. "But mom and pop taverns have been taking a beating."

"Remember the idea of video poker in taverns sank like a stone," said Erik Arneson, communications director for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County. "I am not sure how much, if any, additional support exists for small games of chance in taverns."

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