Six hours not enough time to study gambling bill

Powerball Lottery
Chris Raff hands a customer a powerball ticket in Omaha on Saturday. The bill approved by the Pennsylvania House last week would allow authorize online lottery sales.

Last week the Pennsylvania House passed the biggest expansion to gaming in over a decade. Ironically, the bill was originally introduced to provide for better gambling addiction treatment, yet it now authorizes fantasy sports gaming, online gaming, online lottery, airport gaming, and up to 40,000 video game tablet (VGT) terminals in up to 40,000 locations throughout the commonwealth.

Whether you agree with expanding gaming in Pennsylvania or not, an expansion of this magnitude requires serious consideration to determine its effect, both fiscally and ethically. Unfortunately, legislators were given only six hours to consider this 675-page bill before being asked to cast a vote.

In the end, I voted no — not because I oppose all gaming — but because there was no way to cast a responsible and informed vote. Mine was a vote against a failure of process.

This failure, resulting in a lack of transparency of information, was made possible, in part, by a rule change passed on swearing-in day this year. The change decreased the minimum time required to consider an amended bill from 24 hours to just six hours. Six hours to consider anything from a simple word correction to a 675-page bill. A handful of colleagues and I voted no on this rule change, and I spoke out against it on the House floor.

Six hours is not enough time for legislators, or the public, to grasp the details of a bill and policy shift of this size. And it is not enough time to decide if an expansion in gaming is a smart bet or policy for our state.

We were elected by our constituents to make informed decisions about policies that reflect their priorities. In this case, we were not given the time to inform ourselves, much less our constituents, of the proposals, nor to ask their opinion before this vote.

Questions like: Is this a responsible way to increase revenues to balance the budget? Should this method be taken in connection with other revenue sources, such as a severance tax on natural gas, or changes to PIT or SUT? And ultimately, do residents want more access to gaming?

Maybe this is a smart, popular policy. One of the more compelling arguments I have heard is that there are already an estimated 40,000 illegally operated VGTs in the state that are not being regulated or taxed. But in six hours there is no way to determine the veracity of this claim, or get real feedback from our districts.

Perhaps the most concerning result of this rushed process is the inability to get accurate revenue estimates. Some wager that expanded gaming will bring in $250 million to $300 million in 2017/2018, but such estimates have been disastrously inaccurate in recent years.

It’s budget season, and this fiscal year, Pennsylvania is expected to be more than $1 billion below revenue estimates — in part due to gaming revenues that never materialized — bringing our total budget deficit near $3 billion.

Pennsylvanians cannot afford self-inflicted budget mistakes, and when they happen because we fail to take the time to consider and accurately predict the impact of legislation, it is simply irresponsible. With the budget deadline around the corner, I fear that we will see more slap-dashed proposals that lawmakers and the public will not have the time to read, much less cast an informed vote.

I hope that I am wrong. I hope legislative leadership will be more forthcoming with the budget proposals we will consider; I hope we will be given the opportunity to adequately review all proposals that will have a direct impact on the people we represent, and on all Pennsylvanians.

But hoping for the best isn’t a responsible policy, and Pennsylvanians deserve carefully considered policies, laws, and budgets. That’s why I am also supporting a House resolution by Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware) to bring back the 24-hour mandate.

We must not gamble with Pennsylvania’s future.

State Rep. Madeleine Dean (D., Montgomery) represents the 153rd District. RepDean@pahouse.net