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Online gaming awaits verdict in Pa.

| Thursday, June 23, 2016, 11:25 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvanians soon might not have to leave their couches to play a game of poker or blackjack.

Legislation that would legalize and regulate Internet gaming, or iGaming, is sitting in the state House awaiting a final vote and negotiations on the budget.

If passed by both chambers and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania would become the fourth state to legalize and regulate iGaming behind Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey.

It would take nine to 12 months to set up iGaming under the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, agency spokesman Doug Harbach said.

Patrons could go on any Pennsylvania casino website to play slot machine-style and table games. Technology enables regulators to verify the person is in Pennsylvania and to confirm the prospective gambler is 21 years or older, lawmakers and staff say.

Under the proposal, the state's 12 brick-and-mortar casinos could apply for a certificate from the gaming control board to host iGaming online. Casinos would pay $8 million for the certificate, while iGaming operators, those who host and manage the website for the casinos, would pay $2 million, said Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland County, a key supporter.

Access to the games will be “highly regulated” by the board, said Bill Thomas, spokesman for Rep. Rosita Youngblood, D-Philadelphia, sponsor of the iGaming amendment.

The casinos would verify players are older than 21 by requiring them to open an account and set up multiple forms of identification, like a Social Security number, Thomas said.

It will also be regulated within the boundaries of Pennsylvania using geolocation software, Dunbar said. Out-of-state residents would have access as long as they are in Pennsylvania, he said.

“Internet gaming already exists. We need a regulated environment to protect underage players from gambling,” Thomas said. “(This bill) is in the best interest of the consumers, and players are in need of the protections that don't exist in the unregulated gaming space.”

The regulations will look much like those implemented by New Jersey, Dunbar said. He added that the Garden State has no reported incidents of underage or out-of-state use since iGaming was legalized.

Under this bill, gambling online and in-house would be identical — the age limit, payout maximums and more. However, the revenues will be taxed at different rates. Revenue from casinos is taxed at 53.5 percent, Dunbar said, while the iGaming would be taxed at 16 percent.

He said the geolocation technology is expensive and requires constant monitoring and updating.

Despite the age and location restrictions, Rep. Cris Dush, R-Indiana, said he does not support the expansion of gaming because of the consequences it could have on the public.

“They're opening up the door to allow people to use credit cards and run up massive debt,” he said.

“The casinos hold all of the cards right now with this bill.”

The legislation also adds slots to airports and at off-tracking betting sites, among other gaming changes.

Steve Miskin, House GOP Spokesman, said a fiscal analysis is being prepared on the revenue.

Jeff Sheridan, Gov. Tom Wolf's spokesman, said Wolf would support gaming as part of a final budget agreement, however, “he wants to ensure the revenue is sustainable and recurring” and that the state lottery system would not be negatively affected by the expansion.

The legislation will need to pass the full House and Senate before reaching Wolf's desk.

Carley Mossbrook is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.

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