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House ready to vote on slots

Unexpected Democratic opposition delays ballot by a day

Thursday, July 17, 2003

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The state House is again set to vote on a bill to establish 11 slot machine operations statewide, but the expanded-gambling measure suddenly faces opposition from an unexpected source: Senate Democrats.

House Minority Leader William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, discusses a possible compromise proposal to expand gambling in Pennsylvania during a press cofenrence yesterday at the capitol in Harrisburg. (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press)
Click photo for larger image.

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The House yesterday put off for one day its vote on a proposal by Gov. Ed Rendell and House Speaker John Perzel, which would permit up to 5,000 slot machines at each of nine horse racetracks around the state plus two non-track locations -- one in Pittsburgh and another in Philadelphia.

House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said the House will vote today on a gambling bill and he expects it to win approval. The vote was supposed to happen yesterday but was delayed because the bill had to be put into final form and reviewed by both Republican and Democratic House caucuses last night.

"The delay was strictly logistical," he said.

The House's slots bill would provide funding -- perhaps as much as $150 million -- to help finance a new hockey arena for the Penguins, and also would help Philadelphia pay for a $500 million expansion of its convention center, something that Perzel, who is from Philadelphia, is keenly interested in.

But yesterday, opposition to the House version of the slot machine bill arose from an unusual source -- the 21 Democrats in the state Senate, who in the past have supported expanded gambling.

"There would be virtually no Senate Democrat support for the present version of the bill, as we are now reading it," said Gary Tuma, an aide to state Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Phila. Fumo played a key role in crafting the bill that the Senate passed 27-22 in late June.

All 21 Democrats voted for that bill, which differed in several ways from the current House bill. The Senate bill would have allowed slot machines only at the four existing racetracks plus up to four new tracks. Slots at non-track locations weren't mentioned in the Senate bill, which also got support from six of the 29 Senate Republicans.

Tuma said yesterday that Senate Democrats strongly objected to several changes that House Republicans want to make in the Senate-passed bill.

The Senate bill contained a provision that would have banned political contributions from slot machine and gaming company officials to state or local elected officials. Another provision would have created a "central control" facility where state Revenue Department officials would be able to monitor the amount of money bet and paid out on all slot machines around the state.

By using such computerized equipment, Tuma said, "You can see the 'play' on each machine and see the payout on each one. You can shut the machine down (from Harrisburg) if someone sees an impropriety. It's the best anti-corruption, anti-skimming technology available."

Gene Stilp placed signs on a 15-foot inflatable slot machine yesterday outside the state Capitol in Harrisburg to protest the possible adoption of slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania. (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press)
Click photo for larger image.

But House Republicans want to delete both of those provisions in the bill to be considered today.

The House also wants to change the makeup of a new gaming oversight board from seven members (with three named by the governor) to five members, with only one named by the governor, Tuma said.

"We are willing to be flexible but there are certain provisions for the public interest that we don't want to see removed from the bill," he said. "We recognize that maybe [House Republicans] will change their minds overnight or amend it on the floor, but if the bill doesn't change, it's over."

Nonetheless, Smith said he was still hopeful the Senate would approve the House's version of expanded gambling. He said he thinks Senate Democrats were objecting to the bill in an effort to gain leverage or benefits for their members at the last minute.

"I think they are just trying to carve out one more piece of the pie," he said. "If the Senate rejects what the House sends over, I think the whole gambling issue will be on life support and almost dead. It would definitely blow up the tax reform proposal."

The 11-site, expanded-gambling measure could raise up to $1 billion for the state, Rendell has said, and is closely linked to his "Plan for a New Pennsylvania," which calls for the state to provide $1.5 billion in school property tax relief to homeowners statewide, plus money for education programs.

Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks, the original author of the Senate racetrack gambling bill, said yesterday he's hoping the five GOP senators who joined him in passing the Senate bill in late June will support the House version, but it's too soon to tell.

Smith said that some House Democrats wanted to legalize as many as 14 gambling locations statewide, but Republicans are holding the line at 11 -- nine tracks and two non-tracks.

"It's always a greed issue that takes this [gambling] issue too far," he said. "This issue has always died in the past when someone wanted to do one more thing. If they push it one step too far, it will die."

If the House approves its version of the gambling bill today, it will return to the Senate for further action. If the Senate rejects it, the measure could end up in a House-Senate conference committee or could simply die.

"If it blows up now, it blows up for a long time," Smith said.


Staff writer Johnna Pro contributed to this report.

Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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