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Gambling emerges as hang up in Pennsylvania budget talks

| Tuesday, June 27, 2017, 11:51 a.m.
The state Capitol in Harrisburg.
JASMINE GOLDBAND
The state Capitol in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG — Tax-averse Republican lawmakers tasked with fixing Pennsylvania's biggest cash shortfall since the recession are hitting a rough patch over how much more gambling to legalize.

Tuesday was the fourth-to-last day of the fiscal year, and leaders of the House and Senate Republican majorities remained behind closed doors discussing compromise spending and revenue plans.

Gambling has emerged as a key piece of the multibillion-dollar revenue puzzle that Republicans are trying to assemble. However, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said House Republican leaders will not sign off on gambling legislation unless it allows slot machine-style video gambling at thousands of bars, truck stops and liquor license holders.

The Senate has backed a narrower proposal that includes online casino gambling and online lottery play. But Corman said he was trying to find enough support in the 50-seat Senate to pass a compromise gambling bill that includes gambling in bars.

“We haven't hit critical mass as of yet,” Corman told reporters Monday afternoon.

One discussion involves allowing video gambling machines at bars in counties that do not host a casino, Republican senators said.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, declined to respond directly to Corman's contention. Earlier this month, the House narrowly approved a bill that would allow a liquor license holder as well as a truck stop to operate video gambling machines. It would allow as many as 40,000 of the video gambling machines statewide.

Senate Republicans say they need $2.2 billion just to balance a bare-bones budget plan produced by House Republicans.

Supporters say the machines will raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and local governments, benefit a wider range of small businesses and break the hold that the casinos have on Pennsylvania's gambling industry. Pennsylvania is the nation's No. 2 commercial casino state, behind Nevada.

The issue is being heavily lobbied in the Capitol, and people with interests in video gambling machines have given campaign contributions to House Republicans. Casino interests are prohibited from giving campaign contributions in Pennsylvania and most casinos oppose a gambling expansion to bars, except for Penn National Gaming, which runs Hollywood Casino in suburban Harrisburg and owns an Illinois-based video gambling machine operator.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is counting on an extra $250 million in cash from new forms of gambling. However, his Department of Revenue told lawmakers that allowing gambling in so many new locations would inflict losses on revenue the state gets from the Pennsylvania Lottery and licensed casinos. Just setting up regulatory systems for gambling in bars could take a year or more, the department told lawmakers.

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