Last week, Philadelphia's SugarHouse Casino was fined $100,000 for using "illegitimate" card decks. This is just the latest in a steady stream of fines imposed by the state Gaming Control Board. In the past five years, Pennsylvania casinos and related businesses have been fined more than $5 million for infractions ranging from licensing issues to allowing underage gamblers.
This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that these fines indicate that the state's Gaming Control Board is doing its job in regulating and enforcing the state's casinos.
The bad news is that these fines could be a signal that casinos are lax about the rules governing their operations — or worse, thumbing their noses at the controls, figuring the fines are a smaller price to pay than obeying the rules.
New Jersey, by contrast, which has three fewer casinos than Pennsylvania's 12 currently operating, issued a total of $458,000 in fines in the past five years, according to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. That means an average of $10,200 in annual fines per casino. By contrast, the average for Pennsylvania casino fines is $83,200 per casino per year, more than eight times the rate of New Jersey. (New Jersey, of course, has had gaming for far longer than Pennsylvania, although since 1978, no fines were imposed for 22 out of 40 years.)
The Pennsylvania numbers are slightly skewed by a whopping $1.2 million in fines imposed last year on the Downs Racing/Mohegan Sun for failure in internal controls and doing business with unlicensed providers.
This question of what these casino fines signal becomes especially troubling considering the ongoing expansion of gaming in this state. Last year, lawmakers legalized online gambling, and set in motion the sports-betting business that was enabled by a Supreme Court ruling.
If we're confident the Gaming Control Board is doing its job of oversight and monitoring, we're less confident that the state legislature is paying much attention to the potential fault lines in the business of gaming that they've unleashed in the state (total gross revenue to date: $31 billion). Both the House and the Senate have committees whose job it is to provide gaming oversight. But the House gaming committee hasn't met in more than a year. True, the committees mainly deal with pending bills, but they have the power to convene hearings and investigate issues, and make suggestions that are not necessarily within the purview of the gaming board. For example, does it make sense for the casino fines to go into a special directed fund, for education or opioid reduction? Is it time to reexamine the wisdom of diverting casino tax revenues to the state's faltering horse race industry (which has received $2.7 billion to date, and counting.)