Table games in Pa. means poker, craps _ and pork

AP News
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Posted: Jan 04, 2010 11:15 AM

A heavily negotiated bill that would deliver poker, craps and other table games to Pennsylvania's casinos is also now the latest method for state lawmakers to deliver on their pet projects.

Under the bill's latest version, the casinos will send 14 percent of their table games take to the state treasury and another 2 percent to fund civic and infrastructure projects in the communities surrounding the casinos.

Some of the local money would fatten municipal and county budgets.

Some is earmarked for a handful of specific institutions: Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Monroeville and Lower Bucks Hospital in suburban Philadelphia.

Such earmarking in the table games bill is reminiscent to critics of the secretive process in which lawmakers have been able to direct grants _ known colloquially as "WAMs," for walking-around money _ toward their favored causes.

Only this time, these grants would be fueled by gambling money year after year, seemingly without end.

"It seems that people are trying to take this beyond local impact to how much can we grab," said Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester, a critic of the bill and the ranking GOP member on the House Gaming Oversight Committee.

Proponents of the local set-aside say the idea has popular support among rank-and-file lawmakers, as well as mayors, county commissioners and other community figures.

A vote on the bill is expected in the coming days.

The table games proposal became a key piece of the $27.8 billion budget deal struck by legislative leaders and Rendell in October. It is designed to provide $320 million over two years to the cash-strapped state treasury.

Initial versions of the bills did not include the local share. But the idea had a predecessor in the 2004 law that legalized slot machines at up to 14 casinos and set aside money specifically for Philadelphia's convention center and Pittsburgh's airport and convention center.

In October, a local share amendment to a table games bill introduced on the House floor drew a majority vote. The closed-door talks that followed yielded a 2 percent local cut in later versions of the table games legislation.

Lawmakers with casinos in their districts _ including Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, and Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow, D-Lackawanna _ were instrumental in divvying up the local money.

Estimates vary by casino, but a 2 percent share of a casino's take from table games could mean $2 million a year.

At Lower Bucks Hospital, the potential for a share of money from the Parx Casino in nearby Bensalem is welcome news. The recession is increasing the amount in unpaid bills the nonprofit hospital must swallow at the same time that state budgetmakers axed a pot of taxpayer money that typically helped it and other hospitals cover charity care.

A share from the Presque Isle Downs & Casino near Erie will benefit a local community college _ assuming one is built. If it isn't built by 2014, then the money will go to the county redevelopment authority.

"Given the fact that Erie County is served by a satellite campus from another county, it would behoove it in terms of job training, education and preparation of the work force in the Erie area," said Jason Brehouse, an aide to Sen. Jane Earll, R-Erie.

Critics question the constitutionality of the bill's set-asides for local causes. They say such a maneuver requires either a 30-day notice posted in the communities or a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

And they question why one particular hospital or institution should get money while others do not.

The bill's supporters point out that the earmarks in the 2004 slots bill have not been struck down by the courts. And Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson, R-Bucks, who sponsored the Senate's table games bill, said it makes sense to keep some of the gambling money at home since it comes, in large part, from the pockets of area residents.

"This money is generated locally and that's what the critics miss," Tomlinson said. "And most of the critics don't vote for this bill anyway."