As casino bets go flat, Pa. looks again at online gambling (Update)

File: Carol Balog of Pottstown plays the slot machines at the Valley Forge Casino Resort.. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)

"In order to reverse the Pennsylvania gambling industry's negative trend" -- Pa. casino tax revenues slipped from $1.40 billion in 2012 to $1.32 billion last year -- the state should pass this list of friendlier casino laws, according to a letter from 10 casino chiefs (including Philly locals Tony Ricci at Parx, Wendy Hamilton at Sugar House and Ron Baumann at Harrah's in Chester) to Republican Sen. Kim L. Ward and Rep. John Payne (who head the legislative committees that oversee casinos) their Democratic counterparts, and Gov. Wolf:

- Reduce regulatory staffing and other costs by easing mandatory minimum casino staffing rules and other “strict regulatory requirements"
- Pass a 24-hour casino alcohol service law, or at least extend current hours. Also, allow casinos to give any visitor free drinks
- Grant reinvestment tax credits for 1) updating casinos, 2) marketing to out of state patrons (per W.Va. practice)
- Allow “immediate installations of new slot machines and electronic table games” pending prior approval of another state or a proper testing lab, instead of waiting for Pa. regulators to approve each machine
- Allow tax-free “Promotional Play” in which bets are made in an internal casino currency, not U.S. dollars (for example: bet points, win meal tickets)
- Don't make it easier for taverns or other other non-casinos to install gambling machines. In Illinois, these are blamed for casino layoffs.
- No additional smoking restrictions.
- No additional resort casinos and no easing of current restrictions on Valley Forge and Nemacolin, the "resort casinos"
- “Eliminate redundancy” by combining regulatory powers now spread through the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, Revenue Department, State Police, and Attorney General.
- Add “serious sanctions designed to deter underaged persons from gambling,” using NJ drivers’ license 6-months suspension as a model.

"This all starts with the latest attempt to get in an I-gaming bill," backed by Sen. Payne and members of his committee, says Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson, R-Bucks, an ally of casino owners; his district includes the Parx casino.. "We're not opposed, but we think the tax rate can't be lower than it is for casinos," Tomlinson added. "If we have the right structure, if we make (Internet gamblers) register at the casinos, if we put a proper fee in there and put a higher tax rate than the casinos pay, they might pass it."

Tomlinson says lottery machines are less likely to pass "That decimated casinos in Illiinois." Drinks all night? "That's a possibility. I believe that should be done. That matches other states." Tax credits for casino expansion? "That's very important." So is speeding the rate at which new machines are approved: "We have a terrible lag. If there's a hot machine and it's not at Sugar House or Parx or Harrah's, Mom and Pop are going back to Atlantic City."

Payne says he and Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Coraopolis, want hearings on new Pennsylvania Internet and fantasy-sports betting. The goal is programs that are "not competitive with the casinos" but comparable or better than what's already available in other states. Pennsylvania casinos, he notes, helped push "four Atlatnic City casinos out of business,"  and Delaware's betting halls are also hurting; both states have responded with online betting bills, and Pennsylvania needs to at least meet what they are offering or it will lose more business, Payne concluded.

"Pennsylvania's gaming industry is at a critical juncture," the casino bosses warn. The state faces "intense competition in every direction," and "one need only look at Atlantic City to see what can occur when market changes and increased competition are ignored." 

The 10-casino group, which has in the past counted on the support of Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R-Bucks), whose district includes Parx, didn't include the Nemacolin or Valley Forge "resort" casinos, which paid a lower license fee but are also required to sign up gamblers as members, restricted from poker and other games, and otherwise competitively disadvantaged. The resort casinos are seeking what they regard as parity with the others.