Table games at a casino near you?

April 23

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

A legislative proposal that would allow Pennsylvania’s casinos to add table games will be up for discussion before a House committee next month.

House Bill 2121 – yes, that number was chosen as an intentional reference to Black Jack – would allow any Pennsylvania casino to expand beyond slot machines after it has been open for one year. The House Gaming Oversight Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill May 15.

Gaming advocates say table games would draw more people to the casinos than slots alone – and more people means more money for tax relief. Philadelphia’s two proposed casinos – Foxwoods and SugarHouse – are designed to eventually accommodate table games.

But it seems unlikely that Bill 2121 will become law anytime soon:

It has no companion bill in the Senate.

Gaming advocate Gov. Ed Rendell says it’s “far too soon” to talk about adding table games when only half of the state’s allotted slot parlors are open.

And even the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Bill DeWeese, sees his proposal more as a vehicle to get the legislature talking about adding new gambling options than as a sign state-sanctioned card games will soon be here.

“It’s meant to start the discussion, and who knows what would come from that?” said DeWeese spokesman Tom Andrews.  When the original casino legislation passed, there wasn’t enough support to include more than just slots, Andrews said, and part of the reason for the bill is to gauge where lawmakers now stand. DeWeese would like legislators to begin to consider not only table games, but other kinds of gaming expansion – such as allowing bars and fraternal organizations, such as VFWs, to have video gaming, Andrews said.

DeWeese supported table games from the beginning. The point of casinos is to lower property taxes across the state and wage taxes in Philadelphia, Andrews said. DeWeese believes that “the more opportunities you have, the more money that’s available to reduce those taxes” and table games would attract more people than slots alone.

While DeWeese does not expect 2121 to be enacted this year, he’d be pleased if it was, Andrews said.

Not a chance, said Christopher Craig, counsel for Sen. Vince Fumo, and an author of the original casino legislation.

Even though the addition of table games is the “natural progression” of gaming in Pennsylvania, “That bill doesn’t stand a chance of passing for quite a few years,” Craig said. Before gaming expands, “people need to feel comfortable with the current regulatory structure,” Craig said.

“Table games represent a more expensive form of gaming, for both the operator and the Commonwealth. They require trained dealers. Slots just sit there – they don’t need a break, lunch, health care, overtime … but a dealer would. Because it’s a cash-transaction involving human beings, we’re going to need more state regulatory oversight.”

Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said, “The governor believes that it’s far too soon to think about expanding gaming. He believes we need to have all the gaming venues that the law allows now open and operating, and have an opportunity to see what’s going on, before there’s any thought of expansion.”

So would Rendell veto HB2121 if it reached his desk before then? Ardo said it’s too early to tell. “We are a long way from it reaching his desk. We are no where close to the point of thinking about signing or vetoing.”

Daniel Hunter, a founder of Casino-Free Philadelphia, said he thinks the governor is playing politics. “He knows there’s a lot of controversy going on right now,” Hunter said. “You don’t have any Philadephia politicians supporting the governor’s position (on casinos), so you’ve got to do the political thing.”

Hunter said he doesn’t think the state has enough oversight in place for slots, let alone slots and table games. He worries the decision to expand will be based on what is best for the gaming industry, at the expense of other considerations.

Maggie O’Brien, founder of pro-casino group Fishtown FACT, said she personally thinks adding table games would be good, because they would bring more people to the casinos, and that would mean more money for the casinos, and in turn, more money for her neighborhood. She also said that people often tell her that a casino with table games would be more like a resort, and some say they see no point of a slots-only casino. “Whenever we’ve had meetings with people from SugarHouse, people always ask when table games are coming,” she said. 

But FACT has had no official discussions about the pros or cons of table games, she said, and to do so would be “putting the cart before the horse’ because “we can’t even get slots yet.”

Foxwoods officials are also concentrating on the horse for now. “Our focus right now is on getting our current project up and running,” said spokeswoman Maureen Garrity. “If and when table games ever get passed, we’ll evaluate it at that time.”

The current House committee calendar calls for the public hearing at 10 a.m. in room 205 of the Ryan Office Building in Harrisburg.

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