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Taverns need video poker to compete, group declares

Saturday, February 13, 1999

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Many of Allegheny County's 2,000 bars and taverns will close if the state legalizes riverboat gambling and slot machines at racetracks but doesn't allow bars to have video poker machines, the president of the county Tavern Association said yesterday.

Bernard Pucka, whose father owned a tavern in Lawrenceville for 30 years, said small neighborhood bars throughout the county will be decimated if floating casinos and slots are approved but bars can't have video poker.

"Mom and pop bars, especially in the Mon and Allegheny valleys, won't be able to compete" against casinos run by large, out-of-state entertainment companies and slot machines at Ladbroke at the Meadows racetrack in Washington County, Pucka said.

Pucka appeared at a taping yesterday of KD/PG Sunday Edition, which will be aired tomorrow at 11 a.m. on KDKA-TV. Also appearing was state Sen. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, a staunch foe of additional legalized gambling and a candidate for U.S. Senate in the 2000 election.

Schwartz said she expected a close vote March 8, when the Senate is expected to consider a House-passed bill setting up a nonbinding statewide referendum in May on three new forms of gambling: riverboat casinos, slots at the tracks and video poker in bars.

"It could pass, but it's not an absolute given," she said.

In order for ballots to be printed in time for the May 18 vote, the gambling bill must be passed by the Senate, approved by the attorney general and signed by the governor all on one day.

"That's a lot of work to get done in one day," said Schwartz.

The results of the May referendum aren't binding on the Legislature but will carry great weight. Details of how expanded gambling would work - such as which cities would get riverboats and how many boats there would be, how many slot machines would be at each of the four Pennsylvania racetracks and how many video poker machines each bar could have - won't be decided unless each new form of gambling is approved by voters, she said.

Schwartz said she doesn't think expanding and taxing gambling is an appropriate way to raise money for education and economic development, as gambling proponents have argued.

Pucka said that many bars in his association - especially small, family-owned ones - are barely making money now, and need video poker to attract and keep customers.

He said that liability insurance for bars cost less than $100 a year in the 1950s and now costs more than $5,000. If a drunken customer leaves a bar and injures someone while driving home, the bar that served the liquor can be sued by the injured party.

He said that while "chain bars" can more easily absorb higher costs or raise prices, it's hard for neighborhood bars to raise prices because their regular customers complain.

"If a neighborhood bar raises the price of a beer by a nickel, there's hell to pay," he said.

Pucka admitted that in many bars, both in Allegheny County and elsewhere in the state, video poker machines - which are marked "for amusement only" - are used for illegal gambling. He said a bar can be fined $1,000 or more, or have its liquor license suspended or revoked, if it is caught using the illegal machines.

He urged the Legislature to make such machines legal so they can be promoted openly instead of used covertly, but Gov. Ridge has insisted on a statewide referendum before allowing any more forms of gambling.

Pucka said that in 1990, the state House and Senate approved video poker for bars, but then-Gov. Robert Casey vetoed the measure. That bill would have allowed three machines per bar, with the revenue divided as follows: 35 percent for the machine vendor, 35 percent for the bar owner, and 10 percent each for the state, the municipality and the school district where the bar was located.

A bill approved by the state Senate last year would have allowed four poker machines per bar, but it died in the House.

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