HARRISBURG — Walk in. Buy a shot of whiskey from the clerk behind the plexiglass window; maybe two. Then hit up the gambling machine in the corner.
This is what Democratic state representatives from Philadelphia fear will be the future in countless nuisance establishments across the city known as "stop-and-gos" if a sweeping gambling expansion bill approved by the House this month is allowed to stand.
The controversial legislation would, among other changes, allow up to 40,000 so-called video gaming terminals (VGTs) – essentially slot machines — statewide in bars, restaurants, and other stores with a license to sell liquor.
In Philadelphia, that means that the hundreds of neighborhood stores that for years have caused problems ranging from loitering and public drunkenness to other crimes would be able to apply for one of the licenses to install the terminals.
Stop-and-gos "are deteriorating the city of Philadelphia," Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D., Phila.), said during last week's debate on the House floor on the gambling expansion bill. "This bill will give them slot machines and games. We should not, and cannot, support this shots-and-slots legislation."
The legislation is now back in the Senate, where support for VGTs is tepid at best. Still, the state is facing a more than $1 billion shortfall entering the fiscal year that begins July 1 – and legislators only have a few more weeks to figure out ways to raise new dollars to make up for it. Gambling expansion, and VGTs in particular, has been touted as a money-maker, setting the stage for tense negotiations on the issue in the weeks to come.
But the problem of stop-and-go stores is particularly acute in Philadelphia, whose legislators – almost all Democrats – are in the minority and do not have a good seat at the negotiating table.
Stop-and-gos are small convenience stores, delis, or gas stations with liquor licenses – though many don't technically meet the seating and food sales requirements to have one. They sell a variety of alcoholic beverages, including single shots of liquor.
They are scattered all over the city. In some neighborhoods, they have become a magnet for crime.
But because they hold a liquor license, they would be eligible under the gambling expansion bill to apply for a license to set up VGTs.
This week, several Philadelphia representatives proposed legislation to crack down on stop-and-go stores and prevent them from obtaining VGTs if the gambling bill passes the Senate. The legislation would impose heavy standards and oversight for stop-and-gos, enforcing often-ignored seating, food sales, and food preparation mandates required for liquor licenses.
For some, it's personal.
"A stop-and-go establishment is right next door to my district office that is currently operating after being cited for various violations," said Rep. Christopher Rabb (D., Phila.), a cosponsor of the bill. "Its owner is neither a resident of my district or the city, and has no known ties to the local business or civic community."
Rabb and his staff find themselves performing janitorial duties just to keep the sidewalks clean by his district office on the 7200 block of Germantown Avenue.
"The business regularly has intoxicated customers, loiterers and panhandlers, and serves dozens of unaccompanied minors from Henry Houston School every weekday afternoon," said Rabb, adding: "VGTs in businesses such as these that prey on historically marginalized communities would make them commercial super-predators."
The "anti-nuisance" bill that Rabb and other Philadelphia legislators are pushing was approved unanimously in the House Liquor Control Committee last week and is on its way to the full House.
"No Pennsylvanian should be held hostage by nuisance businesses, decreased quality of life, and the increased crime associated with them," said Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Phila.), one of the representatives cosponsoring the bill.
Even proponents of the gambling expansion bill in the House who are supportive of VGTs agree with Philadelphia lawmakers that stop-and-go convenience stores shouldn't be able to have them.
Rep. Mark Mustio (R., Allegheny) said the gambling-expansion bill that passed the House takes pains to address the problem of stop-and-go stores. Among other things, the measure would require small establishments serving liquor – a definition that fits most stop-and-go stores – to be inspected by a liquor control officer before getting a VGT license.
"We tried to address the issue in the bill," said Mustio.
Rep. Mike Sturla (D., Lancaster), who supports the expansion, said the bill includes $3 million a year specifically to increase liquor-law enforcement in Philadelphia.
Sturla also suggested the possibility of punishing suppliers if they supplied alcohol to establishments that "clearly didn't comply with the liquor codes."
Despite these provisions, Philadelphia legislators still oppose allowing stop-and-go establishments to introduce another potential problem.
"We need to have the stop-and-go issue addressed, not give these nuisance businesses an added source of income and potentially increase the amount of crime associated with them," said McClinton.