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Pennsylvania

Campaign donations from gambling interests may again be banned in Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, June 24, 2009

HARRISBURG -- House Majority Whip Bill DeWeese vowed Tuesday not to "take a nickel" in campaign donations from gambling interests, despite a state Supreme Court decision lifting a five-year ban on industry contributions.

DeWeese's bill to legalize table games would reinstate the ban on campaign donations from gambling officials, as would a broad reform bill moving through the Senate.

Legislation to legalize table games, including poker, blackjack, roulette and dice, appears to be gaining momentum in the General Assembly. In an interview with the Tribune-Review, DeWeese proposed dedicating the first three years of revenue toward reducing the state's $3.2 billion deficit.

DeWeese, D-Greene County, said he's convinced Gov. Ed Rendell would sign a table games bill.

A House panel today will take testimony on a casino-paid study about table games. The House Gaming Oversight Committee will hear from Steve Rittvo, chairman and CEO of Innovation Group, a consulting firm that conducted the study.

The Senate reform bill yesterday sailed through the Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee. A key provision reinstates a ban on cash contributions to political campaigns by gambling industry executives and investors.

It is the first major gambling reform legislation to pass a Senate committee since 2006, when regulators approved 11 slot-machine casino licenses in Pennsylvania.

"I think it's a strong message, and I believe we're on the path to restoring public trust" in the state's casino regulation, said Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie, R-McCandless, a leading critic of the Gaming Control Board, the chief regulator.

Common Cause of Pennsylvania said yesterday that gambling interests donated $4.4 million in campaign money to candidates and committees from 2001-2008, which helps explain "gambling's winning streak in Pennsylvania."

Barry Kauffman, executive director of the group, said the numbers suggest that gambling interests "will go on a giving binge now that they have the chance" with the ban no longer in place.

Giving by casino operators was limited for half of the period Common Cause studied, because of the ban.

State justices struck down the ban in April, saying a complete prohibition on contributions went farther in practice than called for by the 2004 slots law.

DeWeese received $42,000 from individuals and $25,000 from political action committees with ties to the gambling industry, according to Common Cause's database.

DeWeese said his contributions from the industry comprise less than 1 percent of the amount he raised.

Although his legislation, as drafted, might place the bill on a collision course with the court, DeWeese said, "regardless, I will not take any gaming money."

DeWeese's aides said the contribution ban in the bill, if overturned by the court, would not sink the entire bill.

The table games bill would sell licenses for $10 million each. DeWeese contends that even with table games just beginning "tens of millions" could go toward balancing the 2009-2010 budget. After three years, the tax money would be used for additional property tax relief, DeWeese said.

Pennsylvania has eight slot-machine casinos operating. The Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh is scheduled to open in August.

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