After more than three months of gridlock, Gov. Tom Wolf quickly signed off on a massive gaming package that will legalize 10 new “mini-casinos,” truck-stop video slots, online poker and more. The move effectively ends the long stalemate over how to pay for PA’s $32 billion budget.
But some legislators, like state Rep. Madeleine Dean, openly complained that they had barely had time to grasp the nearly 1,000-page bill before it passed both the state House and Senate about one day after its introduction.
That may have been intentional, some say – the product of last-minute dealing to get the package through the General Assembly. Despite the state’s shaky financial outlook, this latest iteration of the bill is larded with convoluted payout schemes to fund ambiguous economic development projects in localities impacted by gaming.
“There was a complete lack of transparency in the process,” said Democratic state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky. “Nearly all the changes were all put in by Senate Republicans. They had very little if no debate when it went through the Senate. When you have to vote on something less than 24 hours later, of course you can’t analyze everything.”
A share of the forthcoming $90-$100 million in new annual revenue will primarily be funneled into a wing of the Department of Community and Economic Development, called the Commonwealth Financing Authority, as a “host fee.” While the CFA is jointly guided by a board with representatives from the governor’s office, the House and the Senate, the department has notably been criticized for its own lack of transparency.
Krueger-Braneky said she was shocked to discover that Delaware County – where her district lies – would see its cut shoehorned into a new and somewhat unique county-controlled gaming authority.
Krueger-Braneky predicted this new gaming authority would fall under the sway of a Republican political machine that has long dominated Delaware County. She compared the setup to the troubled Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, which had faced dissolution after allegations of financial mismanagement became public.
“What they’re setting up in Delaware County has already failed in Erie,” she said. “We’ve already got way too much patronage in Delaware County and I was shocked to see them making another money grab two weeks before an election. Maybe this is a golden parachute for someone who could lose their job.”
But Mike Rader, chief of staff to DelCo Sen.Tom McGarrigle, said that Krueger-Braneky was simply jealous of the good deal his boss and other local Republicans like Sen. Tom Killion had helped hammer out. Carving his home county out of the CFA arrangement would ensure more local control of gaming funds, he said.
“It’s envy of success. Sen. McGarrigle’s role is to provide for their district,” he said. “When we’re expanding gaming, we’re competing for that local share with other parts of the state through the CFA. (We) didn’t want that money to go through CFA; we wanted it to go to a local authority.”
He dismissed concerns the local fund would turn into “walking around money” for state pols.
“Maybe they made mistakes,” he said. “But we’re not Erie.”
Other parts of the state also got specially tailored language. One densely worded portion of the bill outlines $2 million spread out over 10 years to cover debt service for a proposed science center in Easton, while another pumps $250,000 into an arts space in Bethlehem.
Other language corrects or expands existing local share funding that had been imperialed by a state court decision. State Sen. Larry Farnese took credit for finalizing one such arrangement to revamp and expand a funding stream in Philadelphia. A previous four percent cut of slots revenues – which had turned out around $7.5 million annually – will be replaced with a flat $10 million payout. An additional $10 million would be contingent on Philadelphia opening a long-delayed second casino.
Most of the new lump sum would continue to flow directly to the city and local school district, as under the earlier arrangement. But Farnese's plan also puts the remaining $5 million under the control of the DCED.
“Since 2010, I have been fighting for dedicated economic development funding from local gaming shares to get Philadelphia more in line with municipalities that receive casino assessments,” said Farnese. “I am proud to say this important provision has been included and I look forward to continuing the partnership between Philadelphia’s casinos and the neighborhoods that host them.”
However, it's an arrangement that notably mirrors a plan the senator floated in June that rankled had city leaders concerned the DCED portion would put the casinos largesse in the hands of state legislators instead of the municipality.