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A push for table-game gambling in Pennsylvania

Given the rousing success of Pennsylvania's fledgling slots-only casinos, it is no stretch to wonder what the added benefits might be if the full array of table games - blackjack, poker, roulette, and others - were available.

Given the rousing success of Pennsylvania's fledgling slots-only casinos, it is no stretch to wonder what the added benefits might be if the full array of table games - blackjack, poker, roulette, and others - were available.

Harrisburg's recession-driven $3.2 billion budget shortfall also summons the thought.

State Rep. William DeWeese (D., Greene) made a case for full-blown casinos last year, and he is actively pushing for table games again. He says he believes it makes even more sense now.

"I really feel I have more wind behind my back this time," DeWeese said yesterday. "Revenues are down, taxes are not bringing in as much.

"The physical challenges for the Keystone State are so achingly difficult that any new possible revenue has to be considered. Gaming has been one of the elements of our state revenue stream that remains robust."

DeWeese confirmed that he was putting the last touches on legislation that would allow table games. If House Bill 21 - get it . . . 21 . . . like Blackjack? - were to pass, Pennsylvania's casinos would offer all of the same gambling available in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

DeWeese made his case Monday night in a private meeting with Rendell's chief of staff, Steve Crawford.

The state Revenue Department has not done estimates on how much revenue table games would generate, according to Stephanie Weyant, department spokeswoman. But DeWeese's staff has.

DeWeese said he believed table games could produce an additional $200 million to $300 million in revenue each year, on top of the $1-billion-plus that slot machines brought in last year. He said that figure was extrapolated from other states that introduced table games after having opened strictly with slot machines, such as West Virginia.

"Once Pittsburgh and Philly are online, I think Gov. Rendell's projection of $1.5 billion a year in slots revenue will look low," DeWeese said. "With the addition of table games, we would be approaching $2 billion."

Even if his math is right, the proposal will face stiff challenges. Rendell's spokesman, Chuck Ardo, said the governor wanted all 14 of the planned slots parlors to be in operation before considering table games. There are eight operating right now, the latest being the large and plush Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, which has its grand opening Tuesday.

"The governor will consider all the options available to him to close the budget gap," Ardo said, "but again, he believes it is too soon to consider the expansion of gaming to table games."

Table games would have to compete with another gambling proposal, video poker. Rendell urged in February to legalize video-poker gambling in taverns and clubs in the state. He estimated the machines would provide $500 million in state revenue - money that would go toward tuition relief for students at Pennsylvania's state-owned universities and community colleges.

The thinking in Harrisburg is that both proposals will not pass at the same time, even in a staggering budget environment. Some lawmakers say they believe that if video poker is defeated, adding table games to casinos would be more likely.

Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Upper Bucks), who is opposed to any expansion of gambling, believes the prospects for table games would improve if video poker were defeated.

The governor "asked that we go one step at a time," DeWeese said. "But with our neighboring states moving toward table games, Pennsylvania must have this debate and must have it in the near future."

DeWeese, who is House majority whip, made the same points at the Democratic Budget Caucus yesterday.

His last table-games bill never came out of the House Gaming Oversight Committee for a vote, and opponents are hoping for more of the same.

"This administration is really big on trying to find free money. They don't care about the ramifications," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for Rep. Sam Smith (R., Jefferson, Indiana), the House minority leader who is opposed to expanding gambling.

Clymer said adding table games would "magnify the social problems" brought on by the industry.

"We both know there is a downside to the economy," he said, "so why take people with less income and take their dollars and have them spend it in a casino? What we are creating are more welfare clients because they are taking their money and hoping they will strike it rich."

The easy money of table games can also be easily arranged. All eight of the slots parlors currently operating have space reserved for table games, as do those being built.

"If table-game legislation were passed, we could be up and operational within a matter of months," said Dave Jonas, PhiladelphiaPark Casino & Racetrack president and chief operating officer.

The two casinos planned for Philadelphia are being constructed to accommodate gaming beyond slots.

The casino operators in Bethlehem, Bensalem, the Poconos, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia agreed table games would allow them to offer a richer customer experience and appeal to a wider audience.

Table games almost certainly would attract bigger-spending players and prompt consideration of hotel development connected to the casinos.

Lastly, full-blown casinos would make Pennsylvania an even greater threat to beleaguered Atlantic City, which has reported a 16.5 percent decrease in slots revenue this year.

"Adding tables to Pennsylvania slot houses will make them full casinos much like Atlantic City casinos," said Andrew Zarnett of Deutsche Bank AG in New York. "Atlantic City is the clear loser given their lack of convenience [compared] to Pennsylvania casinos."

The good news of table games is they typically bring an additional 30 percent in revenue for a full-service casino, such as Atlantic City's.

The bad news? Experts say it takes about eight people to staff one table game round the clock, seven days a week.

The industry remedies that by lowering the tax rate on table-game revenue. That is the case in West Virginia, which taxes table-game revenue at 35 percent vs. 57.8 percent for slots.

Pennsylvania taxes slots revenue at 55 percent.

"The table tax has to be lower because labor costs can eat up to 40 percent of a casino's table-games revenue," said Joe Weinert of Spectrum Gaming Group L.L.C., of Linwood, N.J.