State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Lawmakers leave cards on table, pledging a return in January

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Dec 12, 2013 4:28 PM

Photo by Craig Layne/witf

The state Senate has adjourned for the calendar year, and on a somewhat apprehensive note as lawmakers look to bet big on the disparate corners of the gambling industry for the sake of the commonwealth's budget.

One of the last big policy discussions held among Senate lawmakers this year was about legislation to expand the state lottery and also pave the way for its privatization (an initiative of Gov. Corbett's administration). After lawmakers voiced reticence about rushing the measure through before the holiday, the Senate GOP resolved to take up the issue again next month, possibly with public hearings.

The move could squeeze more money out of the Pennsylvania Lottery - how much still isn't known - at a time when finding new revenue sources is an urgent problem.

"It's no secret that we have a very difficult budget in the upcoming year," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi Monday at the Capitol.

Just last month, the Senate spearheaded the legalization of small-time gambling in bars, which is expected to bring millions of dollars into state coffers.

The chamber also requested a study on how to boost revenue coming from casinos, and whether the existing industry could withstand Internet gambling.

Several lawmakers have voiced concerns that the commonwealth may have reached its saturation point for gambling. Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati calls it a valid concern.

"There really are so many dollars out there, but maybe these can be done," said Scarnati, referring to things like online gambling, "if they're done appropriately."

The House has one more voting week left in Harrisburg, but all of the recent gambling expansion proposals have begun in the Senate.

Senate Democrats called attention to their own ideas this week for plugging an anticipated $839 million hole in next year's budget. The caucus' suggestions include delaying the phase-out of a tax on businesses, levying new taxes on tobacco products, and modernizing the Liquor Control Board to help it make more money (which has some support among Senate Republicans. Their most lucrative proposal, by their estimate, is a non-starter with the governor and some Republican lawmakers.

Scarnati said boosting state tax revenues from the gambling industry is the only feasible way for lawmakers to bridge an expected budget deficit. The only alternative, he said, is raising taxes.

"The appetite - and the ability - to do a tax increase doesn't exist," he said. "Doesn't exist in our caucus, it doesn't exist in the House Republican caucus, and the governor's not signing it."

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