Bethlehem Press

Friday, May 25, 2018

Casinos and locals at odds with state

Thursday, July 20, 2017 by Nate Jastrzemski in Local News

The budget crunch and deficit has Harrisburg legislators seriously considering a new source of revenue: gambling video game terminals in airports, bars and restaurants. These machines only deal in low-stakes gambling, but their possible widespread availability and disconnect from resources physical casinos develop within their host communities have many outside the legislature up in arms.

Steve Ruddock, a casino and gaming columnist, recently wrote about the proposed law’s positive and negative points. Bill 1010 will allow a number of machines per venue –up to five in a single bar – with maximum bets of $5 and maximum payouts of $1,000. Proponents say VGYs will be good for tax revenue and liquor establishments while culling illegal machines. They also curiously say VGTs will be good for construction and increase employment.

Those against VGTs say they will eat at brick-and-mortar casino business by as much as 18 percent. The Pa. lottery is also against them, estimating losses of as much as $100 million in five years. Pa. Gaming Control Board Chief Council testified VGTs would overwhelm his staff with thousands of applicants, a change that will require months of new hiring and adjustments. He also raised questions about controlling underage and problem gamblers’ access to machines.

Meanwhile those in and outside the casinos themselves are taking a stand.

A letter signed by representatives of nine Pa. casinos to legislators spells out in detail their vehement opposition to the bill. Some of their points are obvious, such as lack of VGT regulation on-site and their ready availability to gambling addicts. Others are made out of self-interested, such as the expected loss of revenue and the impact on employees.

But the primary focus of the letter is hard to ignore for communities like Bethlehem that have staked a future on a considered and participatory development plan. Whatever the disparity in tax income between a handful of casinos and thousands of VGTs, brick-and-mortar gambling sites are committed to the physical and economic development of the communities in which they exist, and without them important developments will halt.

Roger Hudak, president of the Mayor’s South Side Task Force, composed a letter to legislators explaining this very concern June 7. In it, he detailed the long and collaborative working relationship Bethlehem has with Las Vegas Sands, the results of which have breathed new life into Bethlehem Steel land in the forms of PBS39, ArtsQuest SteelStacks, the National Museum of Industrial History, Northampton Community College and the Hoover Mason Trestle.

The VGT bill now endangers future projects such as a new parking garage, hotel expansion and No. 2 Machine Shop repurposing.

“[Las Vegas Sands] has been an honest and trustworthy partner in the Bethlehem project from the beginning. The actions of the legislature are killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” wrote Hudak. “Harrisburg is treating the City of Bethlehem and Las Vegas Sands unfairly and poorly. We worked hard for more than a decade on the planning the repurposing of the site only to have it snuffed out by greedy politicians. Please reconsider this debacle and allow Bethlehem to continue the planned expansion of this valued site.”

Pennsylvanians for Responsible Government also sent a letter to legislators.

spokesman Mike Barley said, “Casinos across our commonwealth know that VGTs will negatively impact the nearly 18,000 casino workers and diminish the $1.4 billion in tax revenue that goes to property tax relief and the state budget.”

He also questioned the single state casino in favor of the bill. “Both Sands and Parx [casinos] expressed concerns over the true intentions of Penn National Gaming, the only casino owner in the commonwealth advocating for the implementation of VGTs. Penn National has strongly opposed VGTs until this year after they purchased a company that manufactures VGTs.

“We encourage Pennsylvania lawmakers to reject VGTs and protect Pennsylvania taxpayers, casino workers and our communities.”

The Pa. house voted in favor of HB 1010 in late June, and it is now before the senate.