Lawmaker aims to launch online gambling debate in Pennsylvania
By Mark Gruetze
Published: Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
The first proposal to legalize online gambling in Pennsylvania could be introduced in the state House as soon as next week, its sponsor says.
Rep. Tina Davis, D-Bucks County, acknowledges that her plan faces a rough road to approval in the Republican-controlled Legislature, but she predicts Pennsylvanians will be able to gamble online legally someday.
“It will happen eventually,” says Davis, who was elected in 2011.
A federal Justice Department opinion in December 2011 declared that online gambling is legal within states that already allow casino gambling, triggering a rush to establish set-up operations. Nevada passed a bill allowing Internet poker and has issued licenses to operators, although games have not started. A bill introduced this week would allow Nevada to accept players from other states. Last week, Delaware asked for bids on operating a system that would allow not just poker but all other types of casino games, including virtual slot machines.
This month, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie issued a conditional veto of an online gambling bill but signaled support for allowing all types of casino gambling online. The Legislature is expected to tweak the bill to address his objections, and officials hope New Jersey's system will be in operation by Sept. 30.
The American Gaming Association favors a federal bill that would allow online poker nationwide but restrict other forms of Internet gambling.
Davis, whose district is home to Parx casino near Philadelphia, notes that Pennsylvania has surpassed New Jersey as the country's No. 2 gambling state and says it must stay competitive.
“Considering the nationwide efforts to legalize Internet gaming, it is imperative that we maintain the integrity of our gaming industry amid inevitable federal pre-emption and competing states, as well as possible expansion of Internet games through the privatization of our own state lottery,” she says.
She says Gov. Tom Corbett's plan to have the British firm Camelot take over operations of the Pennsylvania Lottery was a driving factor in making her proposal now. Camelot announced plans to market a video keno game, and Davis says online lottery games that mimic slot machines or poker are possible. On Thursday, Attorney General Kathleen Kane rejected the Camelot contract. A Davis aide says that should not affect the timing of the online gambling bill.
Initially, the Davis proposal would permit only online poker and blackjack in Pennsylvania, along with any variations of those games played in existing casinos.
“We tried to determine what the most popular types of online games there were out there, but we also didn't want to discourage folks from going to the casinos,” she says. “We tried to strike a balance.”
Only companies that already hold Pennsylvania slot and table game licenses would be eligible for an online license, according to the proposal. The online games would be run through the casinos' websites. The Gaming Control Board would inspect and approve software and devices for online games, just as it does with slot machines and table-game equipment at traditional casinos.
Before players could wager online, they would have to set up an account through one of the licensed facilities. Players would have to provide an active banking account to be linked with their gambling account; casinos would not be allowed to offer credit to online players. Players would have to sign an agreement prohibiting them from letting others use their accounts.
In-person registration would help guard against minors or gamblers on the state's self-exclusion list being able to access games online, she says.
“We structured the bill to still entice folks to go to the casinos,” Davis says. “Most folks go to the casinos not only to gamble but to go to the restaurants or to see the entertainment that's there. Internet gaming would not take that away.”
The proposed cost of an online license would be $16.5 million, the same as the table-game license fee, and the state's tax rate would be 45 percent, she says. The state gets 55 percent of existing casinos' slot-machine revenue in taxes; the state and local tax on table-game revenue totals 14 percent.
Davis expects the licensing fee and tax rate to change as the bill advances through the Legislature.
“This is simply the first step,” she says of her proposal. “But as New Jersey moves toward approving (online gaming) — and other states around us continue to expand gaming, like Maryland, New York and Ohio — I am hopeful that we can have that debate.”
“There is an urgency to get this done, but I am not naive to believe that it will happen overnight.”
Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BORGATA ADDS IN-ROOM BETTING
Gamblers who don't feel like getting up will have a new option in Atlantic City: betting from bed.
The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City says it will become the first casino in the United States to let guests play using hotel room TVs, starting Feb. 18. The technology, now limited to a slot game and four types of video poker, can be expanded to include gambling over hand-held devices anywhere on casino property.
Before playing, a customer would have to post money in an electronic account. The player will need a Borgata player's club card and a log-in code from the front desk to place bets. The system uses the TV remote control.
Slot players lost $46.45 million at Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during the week ending Feb. 10, the Gaming Control Board reports. That's down from $48.44 million in the comparable week last year, which was before Valley Forge resort casino opened.
The state gets 55 percent of that gross slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots are paid.
Statewide, the slot payout rate is 89.85 percent since the fiscal year started July 1. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.85. Highest payout rate: 90.62 percent at Parx near Philadelphia; lowest: 89.37 percent at Hollywood Penn National near Harrisburg.
Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:
Rivers; weekly slot revenue of $6.03 million, up from $5.73 million last year.
Meadows; weekly slot revenue of $4.55 million, up from $4.34 million last year.
Presque Isle in Erie; weekly slot revenue of $2.6 million, down from $2.94 million last year.
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