Pennsylvania is trying to erase a $3.2 billion deficit, but even if the shortfall were $30.2 billion, it's premature for the state to legalize table games like poker, blackjack and roulette.
The deficit has turned up the buzz in Harrisburg among proponents of table games, who have been looking for chances to expand gambling at the state's 14 slots casinos. While most of their appeals have gone unnoticed, they've now latched on to the state's sea of red ink as the latest excuse to pass a law that would put Pennsylvania on a level gambling table, so to speak, with neighboring states.
Trouble is half of the state's slots casinos have yet to open, meaning it is far from able to gauge the impact that the legalization of slots will have on players and local economies. Now some lawmakers want to give Pennsylvanians new ways to gamble?
Last week House Democratic Whip Bill DeWeese of Greene County introduced House Bill 21, which would put an 18 percent tax on gross revenues from table games, with most of the proceeds going to property tax relief. He'd also give 2 percent of the revenue to the casino's host municipalities and counties and earmark 1 percent for agriculture and county fairs. He figures the expanded gambling would generate $300 million for Pennsylvania in its first year, which includes a one-time $10 million fee from casinos for a table games license.
An analyst hired by the casino industry said yesterday that table games at 12 of the casinos would generate $165 million a year for Pennsylvania.
Despite the revenue payout formula in the legislation, Mr. DeWeese said he'd consider a "three-year freeze" in that distribution to funnel the money toward the state's budget crisis.
Sorry, but no dice.
Gov. Ed Rendell has disappointed on the topic, too. After maintaining for years that Pennsylvania must study the impact of slots before it moves into other forms of legal gambling, he changed position last week, saying he would consider signing a table games bill if it reached his desk.
Let's hope that doesn't happen until every one of Pennsylvania's slots casinos is operating and a thorough assessment of their impact has been made. Then and only then should the Legislature be willing to deal the state in on table games.