Key dispute over Pa. casino bill said to be solved

AP News
Posted: Dec 24, 2009 9:55 AM

Legislative leaders have apparently resolved a key disagreement holding up a measure to expand casino gambling in Pennsylvania and promise enough revenue for the cash-strapped state to stop Gov. Ed Rendell from laying off more government employees.

Two people briefed on a Wednesday telephone conversation among legislative leaders said the group agreed on a provision of the bill that would allow new applicants to pursue Pennsylvania's last remaining resort casino license. The agreement also would potentially create another license in 2017.

The bill must still pass the Legislature to become law.

House Democratic leaders have been at odds with Senate leaders over the provision in the bill, which also would legalize table games at Pennsylvania's slot-machine casinos.

"I think the attempt on our side was to get the process moving," said House Gaming Oversight Committee Chairman Dante Santoni, D-Berks, who was briefed on the conversation. "We have to get this bill passed by the time we get back into session so employees don't get laid off."

A second person who was briefed on the telephone conversation spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak about the agreement.

In October, Rendell and legislative leaders agreed to legalize table games and tap existing slot machine revenues to help the state resolve a recession-driven, multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall. The state budget deal assumed that the bill would raise $250 million and be passed promptly, but the bill became mired in the disagreement over the last available resort casino license.

Last week, Rendell warned that, without the additional gambling revenue promised by the bill's passage, he would have to cut spending, including the layoff of more than 1,000 state employees beginning Jan. 11.

In an effort to resolve the disagreement, legislative leaders spoke by telephone Tuesday and Wednesday. The chambers are expected to reconvene in Harrisburg on Jan. 5.

A resort casino license allows the owner to operate up to 500 slot machines. The state's larger casinos are allowed to install 5,000.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is currently considering two applicants for the license _ the owners of the Reading Crowne Plaza Hotel in Wyomissing and the owners of Fernwood Hotel & Resort in the Pocono Mountains.

However, that license is about to become more valuable. The bill under discussion would not only legalize table games, but it would allow a resort casino to operate 100 more slot machines, for a total of 600, and would relax the rule over who may gamble there.

As a result, other potential applicants, including the owner of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in southwestern Pennsylvania, have stepped forward to express interest in the license.

To satisfy the heightened demand, the House Democratic majority supported a plan to create a third resort license.

But Senate leaders opposed the immediate creation of another license and warned that it could prompt a lawsuit by an existing casino seeking to protect its turf. They said new suitors should be allowed to compete for the existing resort license.

However, House Democrats countered that eastern Pennsylvania senators with casinos in their districts were simply trying to limit the chances that a potential competitor to those businesses would land in Reading or the Poconos.