HARRISBURG - A divided state House gave preliminary approval to legislation authorizing table games in Pennsylvania over the strenuous objections of Democrats and Republicans who said they had not been given time to review a lengthy bill containing controversial provisions that could derail it in the Senate.
In separate legislation, the House gave final approval for appropriations to state-related universities, which had been held up by the table games debate. [See story, A12.]
By a 97-95 vote last night, the House passed a sweeping, 649-page bill that includes gambling changes, sets rates for taxing and licensing, and - in a move that stunned a number of lawmakers - sets aside a percentage of local gambling revenue for hospitals, community colleges, and libraries. Most Democrats voted for the bill; most Republicans voted against.
The bill, which could receive final approval in the House as early as today, would raise $320 million for the state over the first two fiscal years, proponents say.
It establishes a onetime $16.5 million licensing fee for racetrack casinos, and sets the initial tax rate at 16 percent (14 percent to the state, 1 percent each to the counties and municipalities where casinos are located), but reduces that amount to 14 percent (12 percent to the state) after 2011. Gov. Rendell has said he would not sign a table-games bill with a tax rate of less than 16 percent.
The smaller resort casinos would pay a $7.5 million licensing fee for the table games, such as poker, blackjack, and craps.
The inclusion of an additional resort license may well doom the bill, which completes a key piece of October's state budget agreement, in the Senate.
A proposal for two additional resort licenses was dropped several weeks ago to assuage Senate Republicans who said they did not want to dole out more licenses when current slots license-holders - such as Foxwoods and SugarHouse in Philadelphia - were still not up and running.
Senate Republican spokesman Erik Arneson said he didn't believe there was support for additional resort licenses in the Senate, guaranteeing the bill will be amended and returned to the House.
It was unclear whether the legislative calendar would be extended beyond tomorrow to accommodate the necessary House and Senate votes. The legislature's holiday break is scheduled to begin tomorrow and end Jan. 25.
During the six-hour debate, Democrats and Republicans alike objected to a late-hour maneuver that positioned the bill for a vote.
Rep. Dante Santoni (D., Berks), chairman of the Gaming Oversight Committee, yesterday afternoon filed a sweeping 130-page amendment (a5012), replacing the original bill (S.B. 711), that caught even fellow Democrats off guard.
Rep. Bill Keller (D., Phila.) failed in an attempt to prohibit casinos - namely Foxwoods - from winning extensions to open from the Gaming Control Board, which Santoni's amendment would allow.
Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks) objected to language in the amendment that would allow casinos to grant lines of credit to gamblers.
"I see the voice of the casino industry in this legislation," he said.
The amendment added language to designate 50 percent of the local share of casino revenues to go to nonprofit hospitals - among them Lower Bucks Hospital - libraries, and community colleges that are located in townships "contiguous" to slots parlors.
Rep. Douglas Reichley (R., Lehigh) said he was surprised at language slipped into the bill to benefit the Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, whose board includes businessman Louis DeNaples.
Perjury charges against DeNaples, who was accused of lying to get his license for a Poconos casino, were dropped in April in a deal that required him to turn over the business to his daughter.
"This is another example of literal game-playing going on with this legislation," Reichley said.
The House voted to release about $700 million to the four state-related universities, which had threatened tuition hikes if the funding was not forthcoming by the new year.
For Pennsylvania House roll call votes, go to http://go.philly.com/pahousevote