Will Pennsylvania expand gaming to expand coffers?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Pennsylvania government is poised to go “gambling for dollars.”

There could be slot machines at airports and video gaming terminals (VGTs) at pizza shops, bars, taverns, even bowling alleys with liquor licenses.

A  gambling expansion bill would also put casino-controlled internet gaming right on your cell phone and let you bet on fantasy sports from the comfort of your sofa.

Of course, Pennsylvania would oversee and, more importantly, tax it all.

“Too often, we turn to vice or sin taxes to balance a budget. That’s not necessarily the most sustainable way,” said Representative Kevin Schreiber (D-York).

But hours before fellow House members debated the bill, Schreiber conceded he’d vote for it if it helped move the budget process forward.

Representative Sue Helm (R-Dauphin/Lebanon) doesn’t love expanding gambling but says it sure beats the alternative.

“Otherwise, taxpayers are gonna be charged more money and the people just cannot afford to pay more taxes,” she said.

But others don’t believe the ends of finding revenue justify the means of turning pizza shops and taverns into mini slots casinos.

“It continues to be regressive, in terms of the people who can least afford it,” said Representative Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia), who said he’ll vote no. “Basically, what it’s attempting to do is build it [revenue] on the backs of the poor and that’s not the way we should go.”

Governor Wolf is hedging his bets. He said hours before the House debated it that he’d accept more gaming as part of a broader revenue package. However, Wolf  wants assurances that it won’t hurt the Pennsylvania Lottery, which funds senior programs. He also wants to make sure it will actually produce the estimated $200 to $500 million proponents are promising.

“We also have to be concerned about how recurrent the revenue really is,” Wolf said. “A lot of the money from some of the proposals I’ve seen are strong on the upfront fees and licenses beyond it’s unclear how much revenue it’s gonna produce (on a yearly basis).”

But there are other lawmakers who think the General Assembly is once again failing to address the structural problems in the state’s finances. They insist the f-i-x is not V-G-T but a broad-based t-a-x.

“What we ought to do is face our deficit, and face our revenue needs to operate efficiently as a government, and put up the tax votes,” said Representative Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery).

Dean has a bill that would increase the Personal Income Tax by one point from 3.07 to 4.07 percent and simultaneously reduce the sales tax from six to five percent. She thinks it’s fair and would generate enough revenue to cover the state’s bills, but she then added wistfully, “it doesn’t have a chance of moving in this place.”

So, the focus turns to more gambling.

“What are we gonna do next, legalize prostitution and drugs and tax them?” joked one lawmaker who, for obvious reasons, asked to remain anonymous.

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