The Pennsylvania House of Representatives was expected to vote on a gaming reform package (HB 649) this week that would, among other things, legalize online gambling in the Keystone State.
The gaming reforms contained in the legislation would then act as one of the funding components of the 2016 Pennsylvania state budget, which the legislature and Governor Tom Wolf are frantically working on finalizing before Christmas.
With the reforms in HB 649, most notably online gambling expansion, the state would garner some $300 million in annual revenue, which is why HB 649 is seen by some as a necessary part of the state’s budget, and a key funding mechanism that could bring the governor and legislature together.
Unfortunately, the vote never happened, as a late amendment that added video gaming terminals (VGT’s) to the package was added on Wednesday, and appears to have slowed down the bill in the House.
The House adjourned on Thursday without voting on HB 649, and will not return until Saturday, when they will hopefully pass HB 649 and send it on to the Senate — where the VGT amendment will either be removed or act as a poison pill that kills the bill.
The VGT problem
The reason the VGT amendment (or some other unknown change) could act as a poison pill is, all of this is taking place at lightning speed.
Both the Senate and House have proposed budgets in place (the state budget is nearly six months past due; a historic delay), and in addition to reaching an agreement on the budget, the legislature is also busy passing bills that fund the budget. But with time running out, the slightest hiccup, such as the VGT amendment, could upset the entire process.
The amendment passed by a whisker on Wednesday, (96-93) in the House, and by all accounts has even less support in the Senate where it will likely be eliminated. The amendment would allow VGT’s in specified private establishments, something the casinos in the state do not support.
One possible scenario for HB 649 is for the Senate to remove the VGT amendment from the bill and send their version of HB 649 back to the House for another vote. Considering the small margin by which the amendment was initially passed, the House could simply accept the Senate version in what would likely be another close vote that could go either way.
Another option would be a joint committee to quickly craft a compromise and whip up votes in the House and Senate, but there might not be enough time for this to happen.
The real concern in the iGaming community is that the Senate might make other adjustments to the bill, such as increasing the tax rate on online gaming operators. This would be very troubling, as there simply isn’t enough time remaining before Christmas break for the two legislative bodies to hash out an agreement on multiple issues, and iGaming would likely be taken off the table and replaced by some other funding vehicle.
History of HB 649
HB 649, sponsored by House Gaming Oversight Chair John Payne, and cosponsored by House Gaming Oversight Democrat co-chair Nick Kotick, began as an online gambling expansion bill back in February.
The bill had broad support in the House and from the state’s potential iGaming stakeholders, but as the year wore on it was the Senate’s bill (SB 900) that garnered more attention. SB 900 was a comprehensive gaming reform package, and even though the online gambling component was less appealing to stakeholders due to an exorbitant tax rate, the potential revenue from iGaming and the other reforms pushed HB 649 to the sidelines.
However, SB 900 never gained traction, and with budget talks at an impasse, HB 649 was resurrected in November — complete with an omnibus amendment package attached with other gaming reforms. The bill easily passed the House Gaming Oversight Committee, was mentioned as one of the funding mechanisms in the House budget, and is waiting for a full floor vote — which will hopefully take place on Saturday.
Why HB 649 needs to pass
The question a lot of people have is; why does the legislature need to pass HB 649 if it’s going to be included in the state budget anyway?
The answer is procedural.
Every state (and the federal government) has their own way of doing things, and Pennsylvania is no different. When the Pennsylvania legislature crafts a budget they must explain how much money they need for each department and program and explain precisely where that money is coming from. However, the Pennsylvania budget only appropriates the money to pay for these programs; the funding mechanism, in this case HB 649, must still be passed by the legislature on its own accord.
Essentially, the budget outlines where they plan on getting the money from, but the funding source (assuming it’s a new source) must still be passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor.