State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Private clubs buck bar gambling legislation

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Oct 28, 2013 10:40 PM
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A tempest is building over a bill legalizing small-time gambling in bars, perhaps best understood as a competition between two groups for Pennsylvanians' gaming dollars.

The plan to allow raffles, drawings, and pull-tab games in bars and taverns is getting blowback from veterans associations and fraternal clubs that have had such bets since the 1980s.

Bar and tavern owners see themselves as winners under a proposal that would let them offer small-time gambling. Moose lodges and VFW posts see themselves as on the earthbound end of that seesaw.

Such private clubs are voicing their objections to House lawmakers in the two-week stretch until the Legislature is back in session.

"We got limited amount of funds that people spend on stuff like that and if they can stop in every tavern and every place that has a liquor license and buy small games of chance, it's definitely going to hurt the clubs," said Kit Watson, adjutant of the Pennsylvania American Legion. The group has about 750 posts in the state, roughly 500 of which offer small games of chance. Clubs get to keep as much as 30 percent of proceeds from the games - the rest they're supposed to donate to charity.

"Supporting fire halls, police departments, communities, schools," Watson said.

The state association representing taverns supports the plan to legalize bets in bars, which passed out of the Senate last week. Lawmakers said it would help raise revenue needed to plug holes in the state budget.

"If you can get $1,000 from 10,000 potential bar owners wanting the small games of chance, that's a heck of a cash cow," said Watson. The governor's budget office has estimated about 2,000 bars would apply for licenses, which would cost $1,000 apiece.

The plan stalled in the House. One lawmaker in the Republican's closed-door caucus said objections were raised by members blindsided by the bill. There was also disagreement between the Senate and the governor's office over how to spend the state's cut of new gambling revenue.

Watson said American Legion members are making their own objections known to their House lawmakers. He acknowledges, however, that there's nothing about bars and taverns that makes them less suited to having state-sanctioned gambling on their premises.

"They'd be foolish not to enter into it. We don't have anything against bars and taverns," Watson said. "However, this - small games of chance - was put in to allow us to support charities and various things that we do."

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