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Deal seen nearer on casino issue

Legislative leaders were reported to have agreed on a provision for the last casino license.

HARRISBURG - Legislative leaders moved closer yesterday to resolving a key dispute holding up the long-awaited bill to legalize poker and other table games at Pennsylvania casinos and plug a $250 million hole in the state budget.

Two people briefed about a telephone conversation yesterday among legislative leaders said the group agreed on a provision that would let new applicants pursue Pennsylvania's remaining resort-casino license. They said the agreement also would potentially add a license in 2017.

House Democratic leaders, who control the chamber, have been at odds with the Republican-controlled Senate over the provision in the bill that would allow table games at slot-machine casinos.

"I think the attempt on our side was to get the process moving," said Rep. Dante Santoni (D., Berks), chairman of the Gaming Committee, who was briefed on the conversation. The other person who was briefed spoke on condition of anonymity.

[But a key senator was not ready to call it an agreement. "Progress has been made, but there is no deal," Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Domenic Pileggi (R., Delaware), told The Inquirer last night.]

This isn't the first time the warring parties have seemed to be nearing a truce. In October, Gov. Rendell and legislative leaders ended their 101-day budget impasse amid predictions of a quick accord on table games to close the last revenue gap in the budget. But the bill became mired in the dispute over the last available resort-casino license.

In an effort to resolve the disagreement, legislative leaders spoke by telephone Tuesday and yesterday. The chambers are expected to reconvene Jan. 5. Rendell has warned that without table-games revenue, he will have to lay off 1,000 state workers.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is considering two applicants for the last license - the owners of the Reading Crowne Plaza Hotel in Wyomissing and the owners of Fernwood Hotel & Resort in the Poconos.

That license is about to become more valuable. The bill under discussion would not only legalize table games, but would allow a resort casino to operate 100 more slot machines, for a total of 600, and would relax rules over who can gamble there.

As a result, other potential applicants have stepped forward to express interest in the license.