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House gives final OK to table games

HARRISBURG - Five-and-a-half-years after the legalization of slot machines in Pennsylvania, the state House tonight narrowly gave final approval to legislation authorizing table games.

HARRISBURG - Five-and-a-half-years after the legalization of slot machines in Pennsylvania, the state House tonight narrowly gave final approval to legislation authorizing table games.

By a 103-92 vote, the lower chamber gave the go-ahead for casinos to add a host of table games such as roulette, poker and blackjack, that is expected to bring $250 million to state coffers next year.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it will likely be amended as early as tomorrow and return to the House for a final vote - which could also occur tomorrow - before heading to the governor's desk. The House, which had planned to begin its holiday break tomorrow, has extended its legislative calendar to Saturday, if needed.

The sweeping bill (S.B. 711), hundreds of pages long, sets rates for taxing and licensing and toughens the existing gambling law governing political donations by casino owners. In a move highly criticized for its appearance of political favoritism, the bill also sets aside a percentage of local gambling revenue for certain hospitals, community colleges, and libraries.

The bill also includes a controversial measures to allow casinos to extend credit lines to gamblers and gives the Gaming Control Board the authority to extend casino opening deadlines for licensees.

Most Democrats voted for the bill most Republicans voted against.

"Today we have the opportunity to improve people's lives and take a huge step toward raising revenue without raising taxes," said Rep. Dante Santoni (D., Berks), the principal architect of the bill.

Rep. Bill DeWeese (D., Greene), charged in the Bonusgate corruption scandal earlier in the day, made a late-hour appearance, and voted for the bill.

Senate Republicans are likely to strike language granting an additional casino license, said spokesman Erik Arneson, given that three of the 12 companies already awarded licenses - including Foxwoods and SugarHouse in Philadelphia - have not yet opened their casinos.

Sen. Shirley Kitchen (D., Phila.) said tonight that she will offer an amendment to establish minimum standards on players' access to lines of credit at casinos, including considering a person's credit history. The amendment would also prohibit casinos from charging interest on lines of credit.

During the 51/2-hour debate, a number of Democrats praised the bill, saying it would create thousands of jobs and help the economies of dozens of counties and municipalities. Others cited the state's need for gambling revenues at a time of continued economic doldrums.

"The time has come for table games," said Rep. Chris Sainato (D., Beaver). "We need the revenue to help us balance our budget."

The $250 million revenue provided by legalizing table games was part of October's state budget agreement and needed to close the budget shortfall for the fiscal year ending July 1, said Gov. Rendell.

A stream of Republicans tried to persuade colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reject the bill, on moral, economic and constitutional grounds.

Some lawmakers spoke of the "corrosive effect" gambling can have on families, including addiction and bankruptcy. Others argued that directing a percentage of gambling revenue to certain institutions was unconstitutional, while others said sending the bulk of the revenue to the general fund rather than for property tax relief as the slots law did in 2004 would be economically harmful to residents.

Earlier in the day Rendell, in a downbeat midyear budget address in which he announced more government spending cuts, stressed the need for table games legislation to be enacted to help bail out the state. He said he was confident he would soon have a table games bill on desk.

He said without the gambling funds, more state layoffs would be "inevitable."

The bill also institutes a wide range of reforms relating to gambling, such as banning campaign contributions from industry executives and strengthening the state Gaming Control Board's "revolving door" policy by increasing from one to two years the amount of time a former board employee would have to wait to take a job with the gaming industry.