Pa. House puts off debate on casino-expansion bill

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2009 8:00 AM

Plans collapsed Thursday for a vote in the state House of Representatives on a bill to expand legalized casino gambling in Pennsylvania and deliver more tax revenue to the cash-strapped state.

With legislative approval of more than $700 million for several universities tied to passage of the bill, partisan finger-pointing erupted. Meanwhile, the state's largest university, Penn State, warned that school operations were already suffering as a result of the holdup.

"So far, we're about $150 million behind and we've been dipping into reserves. And every day we do that, it costs Penn State's students and their families," said university spokeswoman Lisa Powers.

House Democrats, who control the chamber, gave conflicting reasons for the postponement, but said they expect to be back Monday to work anew toward passage of the bill to legalize table games at slot-machine casinos.

House Republicans largely oppose the measure, making it hard for Democratic leaders to position it for a favorable vote. Democrats unveiled the bill Monday.

In a late-night session Wednesday, both sides spent nearly five hours debating university funding, floor procedure and gambling-control regulations before they turned to accusing each other of playing dirty tricks.

Legalizing table games was a key element of October's state budget agreement, which wiped out a multibillion-dollar, recession-driven shortfall by raising taxes, tapping reserves and cutting spending.

Adding games such as poker, blackjack and craps to the state's slot-machine casinos was supposed to provide $320 million over two years to help cover more than $700 million this year in discretionary spending for Penn State, Temple, Pitt, Penn and Lincoln.

Without the table games revenue and with tax collections lagging projections, the university subsidies would tear a hole in the state budget, Gov. Ed Rendell and other Democrats argue. However, Republicans contend the state could afford the extra spending if, as some expect, tax collections improve.

On Wednesday, Rendell expressed exasperation with the Legislature's failure to pass the bill in the two months since the $27.8 billion budget agreement. Only a few, minor differences remain between the House Democrats' table games proposal and what the Republican-controlled Senate would support, he said.

As they wait for the money, some universities have raised the possibility of increasing tuition rates in the middle of the school year.

Penn State is facing the biggest budget hole, waiting on roughly $334 million from the state, or 9 percent of its budget for the current fiscal year. The university has frozen salaries, cut department budgets and delayed renovation projects to get by, Powers said. The administration has not decided whether to raise tuition from its 93,000 students, she said.

"I think everyone has their fingers crossed that the Legislature can move forward," she said.