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New Pa. committee members believed to favor bill that OKs online gambling

| Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, 11:18 p.m.
A computer screen in Atlantic City, N.J., shows a game of Pai Gow under way on a gambling website.
A computer screen in Atlantic City, N.J., shows a game of Pai Gow under way on a gambling website.

HARRISBURG — When a key House committee considers legalization of Internet gambling next week, the panel will include four Republicans who were appointed last week and are “more open” to the bill, an Allegheny County lawmaker said Tuesday.

“It appears the skids might be greased,” said Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which opposes gambling expansion.

But Rep. John Payne, R-Dauphin County, chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee and chief sponsor of the bill, and House GOP spokesman Stephen Miskin denied any endeavor to stack the committee for the vote on online poker and other forms of casino-style gambling.

It's part of an effort to address “alternatives to tax revenue,” Miskin said.

“Our (Republican) caucus is stacked with members supporting anything other than higher taxes on working Pennsylvanians,” Miskin said. He said the timing of the committee appointments is “happenstance.”

“There have been Republicans not very comfortable” with bills to legalize online gambling, said Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Coraopolis, minority committee chairman and a leading proponent of allowing Internet gambling. Most of the new committee members are “open-minded and are not closing the door, ” Kotik said.

“I'm generally supportive” of online gambling, said Rep. Jason Ortitay of Bridgeville, one of the committee's four new members. Ortitay said he thought he would be appointed to the commerce committee and did not expect this appointment.

The committee's other new members — Nick Miccarelli and James Santora, both of Delaware County, and Kurt Masser of Danville — could not be reached for comment.

With Pennsylvania in the 105th day of a state budget impasse, interest in the bill has intensified, lawmakers said.

Payne estimated that the legislation could bring in $120 million the first year, primarily from licensing. The full package, including 24-hour liquor licenses, secondary slot parlors, airport slot machines and skill-based gambling games, eventually could increase that to $700 million annually, Payne said.

The bill would require casinos to pay a licensing fee to offer online gambling. Online gambling revenue would be taxed. Initial proposals for tax rates were 14 percent and 59 percent, and licensing fees started at $5 million. Those figures are subject to change if the bill moves forward. Pennsylvania taxes slot revenue at 55 percent and table games at 14 percent in land-based casinos.

The online games would be open only to players physically in Pennsylvania. Gamblers would wager on online casino games including poker, blackjack and slot machines through casino sites.

As it does with the state's casinos, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board would oversee the expanded portion of the industry, Kotik said. Gov. Tom Wolf last week appointed David Barasch, a former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, to chair the regulatory board.

Payne said it might appear the gaming oversight committee was loaded with friendlier faces, but he said, “I have not sat down with the four new members” to assess their positions.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, who made the appointments, declined to comment through a spokesman.

Five lawmakers were elected in recent special elections, four of them Republicans. Their appointment to committees creates a “ripple effect” based on lawmakers' preferences, Miskin said.

Some of the previous members asked to be taken off the House Gaming Oversight Committee; one new member of the panel filled a vacancy from a retirement, Payne said. The committee had seven Republican freshmen before, he said.

Wolf, who has pursued higher taxes to close a state deficit and boost education spending, remains “open to having a conversation” about online gambling, said his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan.

But Sheridan said Wolf believes a consistent source of revenue is needed to address a deficit he puts at $2 billion. Online gambling is “not a replacement for the Marcellus shale (natural gas extraction tax)” that Wolf wants, Sheridan said.

The House last week rejected Wolf's plan to raise the personal income tax and levy a natural gas tax.

Geer said access to gambling on one's home computer has the potential to increase addiction. Internet gambling would hit lower income people disproportionately, he said.

Gambling proponents cite studies that say online gambling does not increase the rate of gambling addiction.

Only Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware allow online gambling.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter.

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