HARRISBURG, Pa. — It's a done deal at last. Table games are coming to Pennsylvania by the end of the year.
By a vote of 103-89, legislation to legalize poker, blackjack, roulette, and other table games received long-awaited final approval last night in the state House. Gov. Rendell plans to sign the bill today.
The gambling expansion, coming as the commonwealth struggles to pull itself out of the recession, is projected to create thousands of jobs and pump $250 million into the state's revenue-starved coffers.
By patching that budget hole, the bill averts the threatened layoff of 1,000 state workers and concludes the excruciating 2009-10 budget process — just weeks before Rendell is due to unveil next year's state spending plan.
A spokesman for the state Gaming Control Board said it would take from six to nine months to get table games up and running in the nine operating casinos — some of which have already marked off whole expanses of floor space to make way for the new games.
Supporters praised the bill — which amends the five-year-old law legalizing slots casinos — as an economic-recovery engine and a good-government measure, tightening restrictions for gaming board members, casino owners, and their employees.
"This is a commonsense, bipartisan piece of legislation that makes our gaming facilities more competitive, improves the public's confidence in gaming, raises money we desperately need... and most importantly helps put thousands of people to work in a brand-new industry," said Rep. Dante Santoni (D., Berks), chairman of the Gaming Oversight Committee. "Allowing table games is the right thing to do — not just for today, but for the future."
Critics made a last-ditch attempt yesterday afternoon to derail the bill for its provision allowing on-site credit to gamblers — and for what they called "pork-laden" language directing a slice of casino revenue to a handful of hospitals, schools, and other entities in certain lawmakers' districts.
As one foe pointed out, the 230-page bill makes the pork permanent: Those entities will get that slice every year.
"We are seeing Washington, D.C.-style earmarks under the guise of local impact," said Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester). "Just because a certain interest has a sugar mama or sugar daddy in the district, they will get funding in perpetuity."
Philadelphia-area beneficiaries of the earmarks include Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol Township and Delaware County Community College, which stand to receive millions because of their proximity to racetrack casinos. The college's share will take the form of scholarships for Chester Upland School District pupils.
Under the legislation, racetrack casinos would pay a license fee of $16.5 million and get 250 gaming tables, while smaller resort casinos would pay a $7.5 million license fee and get 50 gaming tables.
Casinos would also be permitted to host large table-game tournaments.
Initially, table games would be taxed at a rate of 16 percent — 14 percent directly to the state, with 1 percent each to the casino's county and its municipality.
The state's share would go to the general fund to fill budget shortfalls until the state's Rainy Day Fund reaches $750 million. After that, all table-game revenue will go toward property-tax relief.
The measure sets aside $3 million a year for gambling and other addiction-treatment programs.
Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.) noted that while the bill would likely create hundreds of jobs in Philadelphia, he and other legislators came up short in their effort to send the local share from the two planned Philadelphia casinos to nonprofit groups serving communities closest to casino sites. Instead, the local share will go to the city to divvy up.
Thomas said he had received assurances from Mayor Nutter that the money would, indeed, go to such community programs. He exhorted Nutter and City Council to make sure "that these good communities are not destroyed as a result of this opportunity."
The bill's passage comes at a time when the national gaming-proceeds pot is shrinking — even as more casinos open. Experts warn that revenue from games may not keep pace with states' rising costs.
Nonetheless, casino officials — at least those in Pennsylvania — cheered the news from Harrisburg. Operators at venues such as PhiladelphiaPark Casino & Racetrack in Bensalem began making phone calls last night to set in motion plans to install games and boost staffing.
"Table games will help the Pennsylvania gaming industry better compete against Atlantic City and other neighboring gaming jurisdictions," said Eric Schippers, spokesman for Penn National Gaming Inc., owner of the Hollywood Casino near Harrisburg. He said the casino would expand and offer "hundreds of new full-time jobs."
Meanwhile, Atlantic City casino operators were ramping up for an interstate marketing battle for patrons. Table games account for about 30 percent of Atlantic City casinos' gambling proceeds.
Those casinos realize that figure will likely shrink, said Mark Juliano, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., which owns the three Trump casinos in Atlantic City, "because it will be an area we did not have to compete with before."
The Table-Games Bill
The bill to legalize table games at Pennsylvania slots casinos includes these provisions:
- Types of games: Blackjack, poker, craps, baccarat, roulette, and others.
- Number of tables: 250 for larger casinos, 50 for resort casinos.
- Open for business: In six to nine months.
- Third resort casino license: Available in 2017.
- Taxes: 16 percent in first year, dropping to 14 percent at the end of the second year.
- New ethics rules: For employees of casinos and the Gaming Control Board.