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Pa. table-games issue still unresolved

HARRISBURG - The long-disputed table-games bill may have to wait until January. Legislation to allow poker, roulette, and other games at Pennsylvania casinos fell victim last night to one more round of disagreement between the Democratic-controlled state House and the Republican-controlled Senate.

HARRISBURG - The long-disputed table-games bill may have to wait until January.

Legislation to allow poker, roulette, and other games at Pennsylvania casinos fell victim last night to one more round of disagreement between the Democratic-controlled state House and the Republican-controlled Senate.

The Senate approved the bill, 27-22, after rewriting key sections in a move that House Democratic leaders immediately warned could shatter a fragile majority needed to send the measure to Gov. Rendell.

At issue was language that the Democrats had inserted in the House's version in an effort to nail down enough votes. The House narrowly passed its version Tuesday.

Last night, the governor and both chambers' leaders offered gloomy assessments.

"The bill was written in such a way so we could assure passage out of the House," said Brett Marcy, press secretary to House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne). "Any substantive changes would jeopardize the bill, and these are substantive changes."

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said that if the House rejected the latest changes, a final version of Senate Bill 711 would be unlikely to pass by the end of the year.

"We will continue working to that end, but final passage in early January seems to be the most likely scenario," Pileggi said.

Rendell's chief of staff, Steve Crawford, all but conceded the point last night. "We have reason to believe that [the bill] will be dealt with finally in early January," Crawford said.

The Senate recessed until Jan. 5 after its vote, but could be called back sooner if needed.

The latest twists and turns on table games leave in limbo the final major piece of the impasse-ridden 2009-10 budget, which was supposed to have been completed in July. Rendell was counting on table games to generate $250 million in revenue to fill the state's budget gap. He has warned repeatedly of layoffs if the bill doesn't pass.

A key point of contention between the House and Senate is a provision inserted by House Democrats to add a new "resort casino" license, bringing the number of casino licensees in the state to 15. The Senate stripped out this language, while modifying the bill to reopen the application process for one of two previous resort casino licenses.

To date, the Valley Forge Convention Center has received the only license for a resort casino, a smaller version of the big slot-machine parlors that were authorized in the state's first foray into legalized gambling in 2004.

Several groups of investors - including owners of the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County and a group hoping to start a resort casino outside Gettysburg - have signaled interest in applying for the remaining resort licenses in light of the likelihood of table games being added to the picture.

The Nemacolin group previously pulled its application to open a slots parlor, saying such an enterprise wouldn't turn enough profit.

Rep. Dante Santoni Jr. (D., Berks), chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, said adding a 15th casino license was necessary to win votes of some members who hope to boost the chances of getting a casino in their district.

The House version also called for the local share of revenue from the two yet-to-be-built casinos in Philadelphia to help the city and the school district, each of which faces its own recession-driven budget woes.

The Senate's changes would direct those proceeds to area nonprofits involved in everything from health care to crime prevention to the arts.

It was unclear last night what the House would do in light of the Senate's changes. But top legislative staffers said the House, where the Democratic majority is slim, could vote to send the bill to a House-Senate conference committee in the hope of resolving the differences.

Even with the Senate changes, most major provisions of the table-games bill adopted by the House remain largely intact.

In a bill that now runs to 235 pages, some of those provisions are:

A one-time, $16.5 million licensing fee for racetrack casinos. The smaller resort casinos would pay a $7.5 million licensing fee.

An initial tax rate of 16 percent (14 to the state, 1 percent each to the counties and municipalities where casinos are) on proceeds from table games.

A reduction in that tax rate to 14 percent (12 percent to the state, 2 percent local) after 2011. Democrats had initially called for a 34 percent tax rate; casino interests fought hard to keep the figure in the teens.

A toughening of the existing gambling law's curbs on political donations by casino interests, and set aside a percentage of local gambling revenue for certain hospitals, community colleges, and libraries.

Advocates said the measure would create 10,000 jobs. Critics said balancing the state's books by encouraging gambling is bad public policy, and accused supporters of catering to well-connected gaming interests.

Passing table games is one of the remaining pieces of the state budget that was partially adopted in October - after a 101-day impasse. At the time, Rendell signed the budget believing that the General Assembly would soon wrap up work on table games.

The governor has said that until a table-games bill made it to his desk, he would not sign legislation authorizing more than $700 million in so-called "non-preferred appropriations," including state funding for Pennsylvania State, Temple, and Lincoln Universities and the University of Pittsburgh.

Rendell reiterated this week that if the legislature didn't send him a table-games bill soon, the chances of a fresh round of layoffs of state employees would increase.

The governor's chief of staff, Crawford, said last night that no decision had been made regarding the colleges' long-awaited state checks.

If the gambling bill doesn't pass in January, Crawford warned, "there will be dire consequences, because this is a $250 million hole in the budget. It's not a game."

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