HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It’s the beginning of the end.
Monday marked the start of the final week in Pennsylvania’s fiscal year. A state budget, technically, is due on Friday.
A state budget, technically, isn’t likely to be completed on time.
Among the yet-to-be-resolved issues in Harrisburg is expanded gaming. There will be some. A state facing a $3 billion deficit that refuses to increase broad-based taxes needs the cash.
But how much new gaming? That’s still being hashed out and it’s mostly a battle between House and Senate Republicans.
But third parties have also entered the fray and are being heard in a big way, especially on the issue of video gaming terminals.
They are mini-slots or poker machines and there’s a push to legalize tens of thousands of them for bars, restaurants, and taverns across the commonwealth.
There is an even bigger push to keep them out of the expanded gaming conversation. A million-dollar-plus television ad campaign tells of the havoc legalized VGT’s would wreak on the state.
“These gambling machines are called VGTs and 40,000 of them can be just a few feet from your homes, schools, churches and your playgrounds,” an alarmed announcer says in one commercial.
Another ad mentions the loss of casino jobs and the loss of lottery money that funds programs for senior citizens.
The blitz doesn’t stop at television. There are glossy, election-season-style mailers in various legislative districts, negative toward lawmakers who support VGT’s and praising those who oppose.
“It very much is a campaign,” said Mike Barley, a lobbyist with the Long-Nyquist firm in Harrisburg. “It’s a public awareness campaign.”
Barley is the spokesman for the group bankrolling the ads, Pennsylvanians for Responsible Government. Barley concedes it’s mostly funded by casinos, who fear the financial fallout of slot machines on every corner.
“Do we really want to cannibalize that industry? Do we really want to do anything that’s going to negatively impact that industry? It’s bringing in a lot of money back to the state coffers and to individuals in terms of property tax increase,” Barley said.
But VGTs could also bring a lot of money to small businesses.
“I’m trying to find a way to help the mom and pop taverns and restaurants in this commonwealth,” said Sen. Rich Alloway (R-Franklin/Adams/Cumberland/York). “These folks work here. They live here. They’re part of our community. They need some help.”
Alloway insists VGTs would not only help mom and pop shops but also help the cash-strapped state without forcing lawmakers to raise broad-based taxes.
Slot machines are not legal in bars and restaurants currently, but there are slots-like machines called games of skill that have been popping up over the past year across the commonwealth. They take money in and will pay money out to winners. Critics wonder, what’s the difference?
We found several of those games in Harrisburg establishments. They’re legal. But Alloway points out the state doesn’t get a cut and doesn’t regulate them to keep them on the up and up. He says there are also under-the-table games.
“That’s the thing that no one really wants to talk about is that there are thousands of illegal machines out there already not being taxed. People are just stealing the money. We don’t think that’s right either. We should bring those things out of the shadows. Make it legal. Tax it so these people aren’t risking their entire lives or going to jail over it.”
VGTs already passed the House. But they appear to be wavering in the Senate. Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) discussed it Sunday on “This Week in Pennsylvania”.
“I think the House is much more aggressive than we are.”
Do you support VGT’s?
“We don’t traditionally have support for those in the Senate.”
Indeed, a similar proposal failed last year in the Senate and it’s not sounding promising this year.
But the ads will continue and the casino will not stand down until they’re officially dead.
“Anything can happen, it’s budget time,” Barley said. “You never take anything for granted but we feel pretty good about where we’re at..”
Alloway knows his side is outmuscled.
“Here’s a group that can spend a million dollars just on advertising. The mom and pop restaurants don’t have those kinds of resources.”