Asked to revise a little-noticed statute that the Montgomery County commissioners say robs them of their share of state gaming money, lawmakers in Harrisburg have so far overwhelmingly offered one response:
Don't bet on it.
"As of now, there really is not much we can do," wrote State Rep. Robert W. Godshall (R., Montgomery) in a recent letter to county officials.
His response came days after the commissioners sent their own missive to the county's 23-member delegation in Harrisburg, pleading for help to change the law they blame for cutting the county out of proceeds other counties receive for hosting casinos within their borders.
Godshall's reply - echoed by the county's other legislators - dampens hope that the matter might be resolved before the planned opening of the Philadelphia area's fourth casino in Valley Forge this spring.
"Opening up the matter would require a gaming bill, which, by virtue of its nature, would attract dozens of amendments and be impossible to control," wrote Godshall, the most senior member of the delegation. He did not respond Monday to requests for an interview.
At issue is a provision inserted into the law during the 2009 debate on opening Pennsylvania up to table games. Under current statute, counties that host casinos are entitled to a 2 percent local share of revenue from slots and table games.
In Delaware County - home to Harrah's Chester - that share has brought an average of $6.2 million a year into county coffers. In Philadelphia, the SugarHouse Casino has added an average of $5.7 million to school and municipal budgets. And the Parx Casino in Bensalem has outearned them all, funneling an average $7 million a year into Bucks County, according to the latest numbers from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
But under language inserted in 2009 without much fanfare, the local share from the planned Valley Forge Resort Casino will go into an account managed by the Commonwealth Financing Authority, a state economic-development agency.
From there, the authority's board - a panel comprising appointees selected by the governor and Republican and Democratic leadership teams in the House and Senate - will divvy up funds into grants for cleaning up toxic sites, improving water systems, and financing economic-development projects within the county.
Rep. Mike Gerber, the Montgomery County Democrat who introduced that provision, defends it as a more transparent and competitive process than what was previously in place. Earlier versions of the law had placed control of Montgomery County's local share in the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, based in the governor's office.
"I still think it's a better policy this way," Gerber said. "I'd make the change again tomorrow if we were crafting the bill now."
But no matter what they make of the current setup, the county's legislators agree that changing it would prove a Herculean task. For two years, Pennsylvania's gaming laws have been locked in place for fear that introducing revisions could incite a legislative free-for-all of amendments and would bog down debate.
Still, the commissioners maintain that local officials - not bureaucratic appointees in Harrisburg - can best identify the county's needs.
Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., a Republican running for reelection, has proposed using that money to finance road improvements. He called Godshall's response insufficient.
"Surely our delegation has to be among the largest in the state," he said, "and surely they have some cachet to get this done."
Joseph M. Hoeffel III - who served as a Democratic state representative from 1977 to 1984 before his current stint as a county commissioner - isn't inclined to accept that answer, either.
Should party leadership in Harrisburg get behind the idea, lawmakers could make any change they wanted through a narrowly tailored bill closed to amendments, he said. He has urged his fellow commissioners to set up more meetings with the county's delegation to push the issue.
"Our delegation from both sides has to do better," Hoeffel said. "They have got to step up and make sure Montgomery County gets the same treatment as every other county."