A new budget proposal (for the FY 2016/2017 budget) by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf would impose an 8 percent tax on promotional play at the state’s 12 casinos. Based on 2015 promotional play numbers, this new tax would create an additional $50.9 million in revenue for the state. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story.
Promotional play vouchers are generally given to active and inactive players in a casino’s database to entice them to visit the casino, and can take the form of a free $10 in slot play (or more depending on the person’s betting habits), or even a $20 match play on table games, where the casino matches a person’s $20 bet. Promotional play is also a huge lure for organized bus trips, where riders receive promotional play dollars that usually exceed the cost of their bus ticket.
The governor’s proposal is universally opposed
The state’s casinos are unlikely to approve of this new proposal, and are already pushing back against the idea.
In response to the news, Las Vegas Sands spokesperson Ron Reese, whose Sands Bethlehem Casino is the biggest purveyor of promotional play coupons, told the Morning Call, “Any time money is taken out, it’s going to affect reinvestment in the property and the creation of future jobs. This proposal is bad for jobs in the Lehigh Valley and beyond. There’s certainly no shortage of taxes already being paid.”
Promotional play is already a loss leader for the casino, and a state-imposed tax will likely curtail a casino’s usage of it. With less promotional play, casinos may see a drop in traffic, which would of course lead to a loss in revenue – revenue the state collects 54 percent of when it comes to slot machines, and 14 percent of when it comes to table games.
Mohegan Sun’s CEO Michael Bean said as much to the Morning Call, indicating that while only an 8 percent tax, it could be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. “It’s a primary marketing tool for us, but there’s a tipping point,” Bean said. “It’s going to cost us $3.7 million on top of the $125 million we already pay. At some point, if it’s going to be a handicap, you’re going to have to spend less. That’s not good for us or the state.”
Essentially, Wolf’s proposal, meant to increase the state’s tax revenue from casinos, could have the unintended consequence of lessening the amount of money the state collects from gaming overall.
A letter, signed by all 12 of the state’s casinos and sent to the governor last week said as much:
“This tax revenue will never be generated, though, because casinos will simply discontinue using promotional play in the same way and at the same levels.”
Budget problems and other gaming reforms
As noted in the opening, this proposal is for the 2016/2017 Pennsylvania budget, but the state still hasn’t passed its 2015/2016 budget, which was due back in July of 2015, a stalemate that becomes more and more of a crisis with each passing day.
The proposal is also strange considering the state legislature is expected to vote on a massive gaming reform bill that would generate far more tax revenue than Wolf’s proposal, and in a less controversial way. Among the state’s brick and mortar casinos, there is a near unanimous consensus when it comes to the omnibus gaming reform bill, HB 649, which includes the addition of slot machines at designated airports and off-track betting parlors, and the legalization and regulation of online gambling.
However, HB 649 has been earmarked to fix the state’s state pension deficit, and is not being used to solve the state’s budget stalemate – although there have been halfhearted attempts to shift HB 649 into the budget. According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative John Payne, if HB 649 were shifted to the budget it would lead to the legislature having to vote on tax increases to solve the pension deficit.
Payne noted this is something few legislators were likely to do in an election year.
Image George Sheldon / Shutterstock.com