What to do, now that the neighbors in New York, Maryland, and Ohio have casinos, too, and Pennsylvania's tax revenue from gambling has slipped from $1.40 billion in fiscal 2012 to $1.38 billion in 2013 and $1.32 billion in 2014?
State Rep. John Payne (R., Dauphin) said he and Rep. Nick Kotik (D., Allegheny), senior members of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, want to add Internet and sports-betting programs that match the ones developing in New Jersey, Delaware, and other nearby states.
Casino owners, for their part, prefer protection from competition.
Executives of 10 Pennsylvania casinos laid out their priorities in a letter to Payne, Kotik, other legislative leaders, and Gov. Wolf dated Tuesday, in advance of Wednesday's oversight-panel hearing on gaming regulations at Harrah's Philadelphia in Chester.
The letter was signed by Tony Ricci, CEO of Greenwood Racing, which owns Parx in Bensalem; Wendy Hamilton, general manager of SugarHouse in Philadelphia; and Ron Baumann, general manager at Harrah's Philadelphia, along with seven others. Baumann and Hamilton were among those testifying Wednesday.
The casino bosses' letter called on legislators to fight any "casino-like gaming that is not done through existing casinos," which would "weaken" and "cannibalize" their business. They want to keep restrictions that limit competition from the Valley Forge and Nemacolin resort casinos.
They want 24-hour casino alcohol service and permission to give any visitors free drinks; reinvestment tax credits for updating casinos and marketing; and faster installation approvals for new slots.
What are the chances? Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R., Bucks), a casino ally whose district includes Parx, wants a go-slow approach to online betting. "We're not opposed, but we think the tax rate [for Internet gambling] can't be lower than it is for casinos," Tomlinson said. "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."
Drinks all night? "That's a possibility. I believe that should be done. That matches other states," Tomlinson said.
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 SugarHouse or Parx or Harrah's, Mom and Pop are going back to Atlantic City."
Payne said he and Kotik were going ahead with hearings on new Internet and fantasy-sports betting. The goal is programs that are "not competitive with [Pennsylvania] casinos" but more attractive than what's already available in other states.
Pennsylvania casinos, Payne said, helped push "four Atlantic City casinos out of business." Delaware's betting halls are also hurting, and both states have responded with online betting plans, he said - Pennsylvania needs to at least meet what they are offering, or it will lose more gamblers, Payne said.
As the casino executives warned in their letter, "One need only look at Atlantic City to see what can occur when market changes and increased competition are ignored."