HARRISBURG - Following three days of closed-door negotiations among Democrats, the House opened debate tonight on a bill legalizing table games, hours after Gov. Rendell questioned whether the legislature would approve a gambling bill before mid-2010.
It became immediately apparent that Republicans were prepared to throw up a blockade against the bill, starting with a charge that Democrats were manipulating the rules and violating legislative procedures to force the legislation through.
House Democratic leaders had been struggling to secure enough votes in their 104-member caucus to help push the bill past any Republican opposition.
A spokesman for Majority Leader Rep. Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) said a range of issues was discussed in the private Democratic caucus session.
"Members need to feel comfortable with the legislation. It is not as simple as saying a particular issue as a sticking point," Eachus' spokesman Brett Marcy said.
Rank-and-file Democrats say disagreement remained over the amount of the casino license fees and the size of the local share of tax revenue.
At an afternoon news conference today, Rendell said he was "discouraged" by the lack of progress on the bill two months after he signed a state budget with a general agreement in both chambers to see a table games bill through the legislative process.
"I never thought we wouldn't have a table-games bill to my desk to sign" by today, Rendell said. "Now I question whether we will have any table-games legislation anytime during this fiscal year," which ends June 30.
The House could return to session for final passage Thursday, which would give the Senate time to vote on a bill and send it to the governor next week.
Rendell said that with state revenue still coming in well below estimates, he would likely have to lay off more government workers after Jan. 1 without a table-games bill. The state budget, adopted months late in October, is dependent on receiving hundreds of million of dollars in new taxes and fees from casinos adding table games.
"No question, the failure to act will require [layoffs], Rendell said. "Time is running short for the legislature to act."
Passage of the gaming legislation also would clear the way for $730 million to be appropriated for museums, hospitals and state-related schools such as Pennsylvania State, Temple, and Lincoln Universities. The absence of that funding has prompted those institutions to threaten second-semester tuition increases.
Asked why he did not move the funding bills ahead of gambling, Rendell said he did not have the authority to spend money that "isn't there." He said the budget must have the guaranteed table-games revenue before allocating any of the money.
That was questioned by House Republicans on the floor tonight as they tried unsuccessfully to push through bills that would approve the funding for the colleges.
Rep. Douglas Reichley (R., Lehigh) accused Rendell of "holding college students hostage," to the gambling bill.
"It is wrong," he said.
The legalization of table games at Pennsylvania's slots casinos was a key provision of the budget agreement and vital to closing a nearly $250 million budget gap.
Since then, the two chambers have had trouble agreeing on a bill. The taxes being considered on table-game revenue included 14 percent for the state and 1 percent each for municipalities and for counties where the casinos are. A one-time licensing fee under discussion was $16.5 million.
On Tuesday, House Democratic leaders removed a controversial amendment to add two resort casino licenses that Senate Republicans opposed.
Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said Republicans were reluctant to approve more licenses when not all of the existing slots casinos were up and running, including two in Philadelphia.