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Blackjack and roulette put on the table for consideration

Mario F. Cattabiani, Jeff Shields, Inquirer Staff Writers

Updated: Wednesday, May 30, 2007, 2:27 AM

HARRISBURG - Calling it the second chapter in Pennsylvania gambling, a powerful state lawmaker will introduce legislation next month to allow table games - from blackjack to roulette - to operate side by side with slot machines at state casinos.

But even the sponsor of the legislation, House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, acknowledges that it might take years to take gambling to the next level.

Only four of the 14 authorized Pennsylvania slots parlors have even opened yet, and the bill would have to overcome two hulking hurdles: a General Assembly that has grown more conservative since the state legalized slots three years ago, and Gov. Rendell, who six months ago said he believes it's too soon for table games.

But DeWeese isn't counting out support from Rendell, who has 31/2 more years in office and who has been known to change his mind on key issues, including raising the minimum wage.

"Conceivably, it could happen in the twilight months of Edward G. Rendell's magnificent tenure," said DeWeese. "It could potentially be an electric capstone on his eight-year regime."

DeWeese (D., Greene) insists that it's only a matter of time before officials hungry for new sources of state dollars embrace his idea.

"It's my singular desire to put every nickel of these proceeds into property tax reduction," DeWeese said. "Once Pennsylvanians realize the initial windfall from slots . . . any difficulties for table games will be diminished.

Electronic machines that simulate table games are already in use in state casinos.

The bill comes as voters in neighboring West Virginia are poised to decide whether to allow table games at horse tracks there in the ever-escalating quest for more revenue.

Pennsylvania legislators are counting on the new gambling industry to produce $1 billion annually for property-tax relief.

In 2004, Harrisburg authorized up to 5,000 slot machines each at seven racetracks and five stand-alone slots parlors. Two smaller, 500-slots licenses are also available for two established resorts.

All 14 would be eligible for table games a year after slots machines begin operating, under the bill.

The legislation would, among other things, require:

A $10 million fee for the initial table game license, and up to $500,000 annually in renewal fees.

Table games to cover no more than 30 percent of a casino's total gambling floor space.

Casinos to pay the state 26 percent on table game revenues, with 2 percent more going to local host governments. The tax rate for slots is 55 percent, but table games cost more to operate than slots and pay lower tax rates in some states.

The new state revenue be earmarked for property-tax reductions statewide.

Although $28 out of every $100 gambled on table games would be dedicated to state and local governments under the bill, it's unclear at this point how much that would add up to each year, according to DeWeese's chief of staff, Mike Manzo.

"The numbers would be striking, easily in the hundreds of millions of dollars," Manzo said.

Industry experts say that table games attract tourists and higher-income customers who are more likely to stay overnight and spend money on local entertainment.

Opponents say it will create more addicts, and is part of a so-called race to the bottom among gambling states that, in competition with each other, keep raising the stakes for more revenue.

Dianne M. Berlin, the coordinator of Casino Free Pennsylvania, said she and other anti-gambling advocates have long anticipated the legislation.

"They are going after the younger gamblers because they will have a longer time to steal from them. Greed is never satisfied until the last ounce of blood is gone," said Berlin. "They need to put the brakes on in Harrisburg. No state has ever gambled itself rich."

When DeWeese first announced he was considering such legislation in late November, Rendell quickly called it "way premature."

The state needed time - perhaps up to three years - to weigh the economic and social effects of the new industry before any expansion, he said.

"So," he said of the legislation at the time, "probably not during my watch."

Yesterday, an administration spokesman said Rendell hasn't budged from that position.

"The governor believes we need to completely institute slots and evaluate its pluses and minuses first," said spokesman Chuck Ardo.

DeWeese said he's accustomed to waiting the issue out.

In the 1980s, he was among the first legislators pushing for riverboat casinos and had to slog through the administrations of Govs. Robert P. Casey and Tom Ridge before finding in Rendell a governor who supported new forms of gambling.

To read the memo promoting table games,

http://go.philly.com/cosponsor

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.

Mario F. Cattabiani, Jeff Shields, Inquirer Staff Writers

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