HARRISBURG — A bill that could allow several thousand bars in Pennsylvania to profit from gambling contests called small games of chance won approval from the state Senate Wednesday but fell off the fast track amid last-minute objections from Gov. Tom Corbett and House Democrats.
Its passage would represent the state’s largest expansion of legal gambling in nearly four years.
The bill passed the Senate 39-11 without debate and senators had initially expected a speedy vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a signature by Corbett.
But that changed several hours after the Senate vote.
House Democrats worried about objections by VFW post operators and other fraternal organizations to the added competition for the gambling dollars. Democrats also were suspicious about the bill’s speedy track after being negotiated among Republicans behind closed doors, a spokesman said.
“Members on our side have learned from experience that that means something is up,” House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton said.
Meanwhile, Corbett’s office told lawmakers that he wanted to ensure that the considerable tax revenue — anticipated at about $150 million a year on gross profits of $260 million a year — from the newly legal gambling would be directed to programs for the elderly that are traditionally underwritten by the Pennsylvania Lottery.
“While the governor supports the concept of expanding small games of chance to taverns, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the governor believes the revenue should be deposited into the Lottery fund to hedge against potential impacts to the Pennsylvania Lottery,” Rene Diehl of the governor’s office wrote in an email late Wednesday afternoon to lawmakers.
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans had rejected a Democratic-penned amendment to earmark the money for the lottery fund, saying that change went against an agreement they had with House Republican leaders.
The last substantial expansion of gambling approved by Pennsylvania lawmakers was in 2010, when slot-machine casinos were allowed to add table games.
Under the bill, approximately 4,500 bars and taverns could seek licenses to hold pull-tabs, daily drawings and tavern raffles. Individual prize limits would be $2,000 for a single game and $35,000 over seven days, while raffles would be limited to once a month. The state would take 60 percent of the bar owner’s revenue, while the state’s budget analysts expect that about 2,000 bar owners would get licenses based on the experience in Indiana.
Amy Christie of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars and restaurants with state liquor licenses, said the gambling expansion would allow mom-and-pop bar and tavern owners to compete with casinos and the private clubs that can sell liquor and profit from gambling.
But, she insisted, the gambling expansion being afforded to bars in the bill was a fraction of what their competitors are able to offer.
“This is not casino gaming , this is not private club gaming ,” Christie said.
A companion bill passed by the Senate, 45-5, would expand from six to eight how games that private clubs and volunteer organizations — VFW posts, American Legion halls and Moose and Elks lodges — could offer, and it would raise some maximum prizes. The two new games would be race night games, or betting on prerecorded horse races, and small sports betting pools, although the entire betting pool would have to be returned to the players.
That bill was sent to the House, but did not see action in the chamber Wednesday.