Tentative deal on gaming bill paves way for end of PA budget impasse

video gaming terminal - Shutterstock

video gaming terminal - Shutterstock

Sources in Harrisburg say a tentative deal has been struck on a critical gaming bill that would resolve much of the long-running stalemate over the revenue portion of Pennsylvania’s $32 billion state budget. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati recalled legislators on Thursday, with a budget vote scheduled for next week.

The heart of the deal contains elements of several past gaming expansion proposals that had stalled in Harrisburg. The most recent plan would fund the budget through the creation of 10 so-called “mini-casinos” in rural areas, legalization of video gambling at truck stops and the expansion of online poker and slots games. 

Sources said Republican leadership in the state Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf favored the plan. State Sen. John Rafferty confirmed that he had heard rumors of a similar plan, although he added there would be more to the final revenue deal.

Wolf allowed a budget to become law without his signature in July, but Republican legislators have feuded for months over how to pay for that spending plan. Previous revenue plans that hinged on gaming expansion caused rifts between the House and Senate. 

The House had passed a plan to install some 40,000 slots-like video gaming terminals in bars, airports and other public places across the state. After heavy lobbying from existing casinos, the Senate publicly favored expanded online gambling over the proposed VGTs.

Casino operators, like Sands in Bethlehem, have consistently maintained that widespread video gaming would erode their profits, which largely hinge on slots revenues.

Eventually, plans emerged for more politically palatable “mini-casinos” that would open in areas of the state far from PA’s 12 existing casinos. The most recent plan would mix all of those concepts, albeit with far fewer VGTs than the House initially proposed.

A Senate spokesperson was silent on negotiations Thursday afternoon. Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Speaker Mike Turzai, would not confirm any details, but offered an optimistic statement.

“There is no deal until there are votes. There have been some positive talks over the past week,” he said. “Gov. Wolf has now been engaged, which has been helpful. The details are still being worked out and we hope to have something to share with the caucus next week.”

Wolf’s office would neither confirm nor deny its support for a revised gaming plan, but offered a similarly ebullient comment.

“There were significant meetings with leaders this week and last. Work continues and progress is being made,” said JJ Abbott, a spokesman for the governor.

However, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody said his members were not on board – at least, not yet.

“We haven’t agreed to this proposal and will not until Democratic lawmakers have reviewed the details and had a chance to ask questions,” said spokesperson Bill Patton. “We are waiting for more details on a revenue proposal that combines some new recurring revenue with some funding from one-time sources.”