State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Senator: bar gambling rollout "worse than Obamacare"

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Feb 19, 2014 3:23 PM
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for raffle.jpg

What if you threw a gambling party and nobody came? State lawmakers are nervous they're about to find out.

Small games of chance were legalized in Pennsylvania bars and taverns last fall, and the licensing process began in late January. But applications for licenses aren't rolling in. Only six of the 16,000* eligible bars and taverns in Pennsylvania have applied to offer games like raffles and drawings in their establishments. The stakes are high - lawmakers were hoping tens of millions of dollars from barroom gambling would help balance the state budget.

"This rollout's worse than Obamacare, all right?" said Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "More people signed up for Obamacare than were signing up for this small games of chance - from an industry who begged for this."

The taverns industry points to an expensive, four-part application process that involves a lengthy criminal background check.

"A lot of my members feel that they did a background check to receive a liquor license to sell alcohol to the general public. Now they need to go through this process to sell a couple tickets, which doesn't make sense to them," said Amy Christie, director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage Association. The entire application costs $2,000.

William Ryan, chairman of the Gaming Control Board, defended the application process in a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday.

"This is a license to do more than serve alcohol - this is to be involved in gambling," said Ryan. He said gambling is "a far more serious enterprise to be involved in. And I think that was the understanding of the people who put this procedure together."

The GCB has oversight of the criminal background check. Ryan said his agency would review it, although he noted that it was deemed to be necessary under state law. Officials with the Liquor Control Board, which has oversight over another part of the application process, said they would do the same. At least one other state agency, the Department of Revenue, is involved.

"It's a multijurisdictional problem here, and I'm just asking all of you to see what we can do," said Corman Wednesday, "Or else our budget's going to be way out of whack, and then that means less money for other things we want to accomplish around here."

* Liquor Control Board member Robert Marcus said in Senate Appropriations hearing Wednesday there are 16,000 licensed establishments whose owners are eligible for a small games of chance license.

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