Pa. House debates legalizing table games

October 05, 2009

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- State House members worked to advance a bill to legalize table games at Pennsylvania's slot-machine casinos in an unusual Sunday session, as the politically divided Legislature struggled to finalize a government budget that is already three months late.

The proposal is a key element of lawmakers' efforts to find new tax revenue to offset the state government's huge, recession-driven revenue shortfall. On the sidelines of the debate, Gov. Ed Rendell worked to repair a rift between Senate Republicans and House Democrats after last week's collapse of a handshake budget deal between leaders.

Leaving the Capitol on Sunday night, Rendell reported "significant progress" but would not give details of his discussions.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-penned measure met with staunch Republican opposition in a long, sometimes testy debate that was to continue Monday to finish sorting through dozens of proposed amendments. Sunday's session ended at 11 p.m. after eight hours of debate.


A final vote on the bill was not expected before Tuesday.

Even if it does pass, it faces changes in the Senate. Leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate favor legalizing and taxing table games to help close the state's multibillion-dollar budget hole, but they oppose some crucial aspects of the House bill.

Democrats hope to raise about $240 million from a 34 percent tax rate on the casinos take from table games and a $20 million fee that casinos must pay for the right to operate the games. However, casinos say those costs may be too high to run a profitable enterprise, and Senate Republicans agree.

Debate quickly became heated.

"I think it's a sad day in Pennsylvania when the members of the House of Representatives are called to Harrisburg to debate gaming on a Sunday afternoon," admonished Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren.

Democrats fired back.

"When you're elected a member of the Legislature, you're expected to be here every day of the week, especially when we don't have a budget," said Rep. Christopher Sainato, D-Lawrence.

During the debate, the chamber approved a few amendments -- including doubling the minimum amount of money given to compulsive gambling treatment programs to $4 million -- but rejected most others, including ones written by Republicans to ban ATM machines in casinos and force casinos to close on Christmas and each day between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Rep. Joseph Preston, D-Allegheny, accused Republicans of mounting a self-righteous and hypocritical opposition, noting they are not moving to limit other forms of gambling, such as the lottery and church bingo.

"We need to really start practicing what we preach," Preston said.

That brought an immediate rebuke from Minority Whip Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who called Preston's comments "out of line."

Aside from legalizing table games, the bill would triple the number of slot machines allowed at the state's miniature "resort" casinos to 1,500, a provision opposed by Senate Republicans and the state's larger casinos.

It also would impose provisions to combat corruption, including thickening walls between state gambling regulators and the casino companies and restoring a ban on political campaign contributions from the gambling industry.

The Supreme Court struck down the previous ban in April, saying a complete prohibition on contributions went further in practice than called for by the 2004 law that legalized slot-machine casinos.

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