State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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House OKs gambling in bars, sends bill to Senate

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Nov 13, 2013 10:38 PM
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A proposal to expand gambling in thousands of bars and taverns in Pennsylvania has passed the state House and now heads back to the state Senate for approval.

The bill would legalize raffles, drawings, and pull-tab games in bars and taverns. Such games are now allowed only in private clubs - like veterans posts, Moose lodges, and fire halls. The Senate first passed the legislation allowing the games, but because the House made amendments to the bill, it will head back to the Senate for a concurrence vote.

The measure is bitterly opposed by such clubs, who say allowing small-time gambling in bars strips clubs of their biggest distinguishing factor and will erode their business model.

But Rep. Kurt Masser (R-Northumberland) said he knows from his time as a tavern owner that bars and taverns don't compete with private clubs for customers.

"My customers aren't in those clubs, and those members seldom come to my restaurant," Masser said. "So this is not about us versus them. This is not about us putting them out of business by allowing gaming into taverns."

The revenue from small-time gambling wouldn't stay completely in the bars. The state would get a 60 percent cut, and the host municipality would get five percent. Supporters say the main motivation for the gambling expansion isn't just to prop up the state's budget, but to put bars on a "level playing field" with private clubs.

"These taverns are run and owned by our neighbors and friends," said Rep. Paul Costa (D-Allegheny), who voted for the measure. "These are family run businesses... This is going to give them the ability to keep their businesses open."

Rep. Deb Kula (D-Fayette) calls the "level playing field" argument baloney.

"The taverns have pretty much been given free reign with their money. Our organizations," Kula said, referring to private clubs, "still have a limit on what they can keep, what they can do with the money, and reporting that will be very burdensome for my small clubs."

Legislative leaders have been loath to be pinned down on why they're expanding small games of chance now, but they note the estimate that gambling in bars could net the state an extra $156 million a year.

"I do think the fact that it had a positive impact on the budget was an additional positive factor," said Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai.

For Rep. Paul Clymer (R-Bucks), a longtime opponent of gambling expansion, it's the latest in a list of revenue promises of which he's grown weary. The lawmaker was among the first House members to speak on the chamber floor before a vote. He warned that the social ills of gambling addiction far outweigh the financial benefits of more revenue coming into state coffers.

"If I had to give a title to this legislation, this major expansion of gambling here in Pennsylvania," Clymer said, "I would call it, 'Great Expectations.'"

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