Bill would offer Pa. casinos Internet gambling, perks for fees

Only in Pennsylvania: Gamblers would not be allowed to register online to open Internet gambling accounts unless they live more than 20 miles away as the crow flies from a bricks-and-mortar casino.

Any closer, and they would have to travel to a casino and register in person, under the provisions of a Senate bill in Harrisburg calling for big changes to the state's gambling landscape.

The goal is to give the brick-and-mortar casinos a better chance to tap into their local target audience.

It's an unusual move.

None of the other states that have legalized online gambling - Nevada, Delaware, or New Jersey - "require a patron to travel to a casino to establish an online wagering account and to hold an active membership in the casino's player's club," said Christopher L. Soriano, a partner with Duane Morris L.L.P.

The bill, introduced ahead of a Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee hearing on casino gambling Wednesday, contains a grab bag of hefty onetime fees that lawmakers hope will fill gaps in the upcoming state budget.

If every existing casino took advantage of all the expansion opportunities proposed in the bill, Pennsylvania could collect more than $300 million in fees.

The bill excludes Ira Lubert's Valley Forge Casino Resort from Internet gambling, but it would allow Valley Forge to pay $5 million to eliminate membership requirements that limit gamblers' access to Valley Forge's slot machines. Gamblers there need an inexpensive membership or must be guests at the hotel.

If a casino operator is willing to pay a $5 million fee, it would be allowed to sell alcohol 24 hours a day, instead of being required to stop at 2 a.m.

An additional $5 million fee would allow most of the state's casinos to open satellite locations with as many as 250 slot machines each.

Parx Casino, for example, could install slot machines at off-track-betting sites as long as they were not within a 20-mile radius of a casino outside Philadelphia and not within 10 miles of a casino in Philadelphia.

The $5 million fee would apply to each additional site, with the total number of slots per licensee not to exceed 5,000.

The Internet gambling fee would be $10 million.

If the bill becomes law, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board would have to establish procedures for those who do not live close to a casino to establish an online gambling account over the Internet.

The tax rate on casinos' Internet gambling proceeds would be 54 percent, the same as it is on slot machines.