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Online gaming again appears ready for OK in Pa.

| Sunday, June 19, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

If Pennsylvania approves a law allowing slot machines at airports, fliers wouldn't necessarily see rows of traditional one-armed bandits in the waiting areas.

Instead, players could use an electronic tablet that would allow them to try their luck at a favorite slot online; play blackjack, roulette, poker or any other casino game; or order food or a drink or check the status of their flight.

The tablets could be used in bar areas of traditional casinos or at race tracks and off-track betting parlors.

That's the prediction of state Rep. John Payne, R-Dauphin County and chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, if his bill is approved.

“These machines, if they're on a tablet, can be so simple,” Payne says. “You can do all the games right on the tablet. It's a secure system.”

Payne is the primary sponsor of a bill to allow Pennsylvania casinos to offer online casino gaming, skill-based slots and multistate progressive slot jackpots. The bill also would allow casinos to set up slots at “nonprimary” locations and in airports. He tells Player's Advantage that the House could vote on the measure soon as lawmakers try to approve a state budget before the 2016-17 fiscal year starts July 1.

Online gaming is legal only in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware, but other states are considering it. The New York state Senate voted 53-5 on June 14 to legalize online poker at the state's 11 racetrack casinos, but media reports say the measure's future in the General Assembly is uncertain. California and Michigan could act soon on online bills.

Payne's bill goes beyond online gambling in a bid to promote “a robust gaming industry … capable of competing internationally, nationally and regionally at the highest levels of quality” while ensuring game integrity.

Proponents also see the possibility of the state gaining revenue without raising taxes. Licensing fees and taxes could total $120 million the first year. Payne's bill puts a 14 percent state tax, plus a 2 percent local assessment fee, on gross online-gaming revenues.

Pro poker player Jason Somerville, whose career started after winning $5 in an online poker freeroll that he built into $100,000, encourages players to tell legislators about the benefits of online gaming, particularly poker.

“Regulated online poker in America is something I have a passion for,” he says in a phone interview from Las Vegas, where he's competing in the World Series of Poker. “Pennsylvania has been on the cusp for a year or two now. It's great to see more states take the tax-and-regulate online-poker approach.”

Somerville says the No. 1 player-protection measure for online poker is keeping players' money safe.

“The biggest scandals in online-poker history (are) operators that have closed and taken players' money,” he says. Players' deposits and winnings should be kept in an escrow account so players have access no matter what happens to the operator, he says. Other important safeguards are keeping the games fair, preventing underage gambling and providing monitoring and protection for compulsive gamblers.

Payne's bill, which includes all those factors, is not the only measure that would bring new technology and games to Pennsylvania casinos. On June 15, the House gaming committee approved a plan to regulate and tax daily fantasy-sports betting.

Pennsylvania generates more gambling revenue than any other state except Nevada. Payne says the state can't afford to fall behind.

The idea of allowing slot machines in airports developed last year in Pittsburgh during a series of committee hearings, he says. Even though Las Vegas and Reno, Nev., airports are famous for their slot machines, Payne says many in Pennsylvania doubted the idea. But in the past year, Chicago's O'Hare and New York's LaGuardia signed contracts for slots in the airports, and five other states are looking at the idea, he says.

The concept of online gaming and Daily Fantasy Sports is similar.

“We have to get into the new technology if we're going to be competitive with the surrounding states,” Payne says. “As we talk about it, they're now doing it.”

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review's gambling columnist. Reach him at PlayersAdv@outlook.com.

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