PA Online Gambling Has Receptive Audience In Harrisburg

Rep. Payne On His Pennsylvania Online Gambling Bill: Most Lawmakers Are “Open-Minded”

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Pennsylvania State Representative John Payne, the new Chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, has become the latest champion for regulated online gaming in the Keystone State.

In the last month, Representative Payne has introduced:

In a recent interview with, Representative Payne touched on the status of those efforts, Gov. Tom Wolf’s attitude toward gambling expansion and how Payne responds to critics of HB 649.

Gaming long an important issue for Payne

Representative Payne told OPR that even though he hasn’t cosponsored many gaming bills, he has always considered expanded gaming options as a way to keep Pennsylvania’s gaming industry healthy and competitive.

“I learned my lesson early on,” Payne said in regards to cosponsoring legislation.

“You sign your name to a bill, and then it gets changed in committee and the next thing you know you sponsored a bill to ban Christmas.”

Payne now feels that as the chair of the Gaming Oversight Committee, and with a like-minded ally in Democratic co-chair Nick Kotik, he can tackle these issues without worrying about the bill (with his name as a cosponsor) being changed or watered down in committee and emerging with little resemblance to the original proposal.

iGaming regulation an alternative to tax hikes in Pennsylvania

For Payne this isn’t simply a matter of adding online gambling.

“My mission statement is to keep gaming in general healthy, but in particular to make sure our casinos stay healthy and competitive against our surrounding states,” Payne said.

“The thing I don’t want to see happen is four casinos in Pennsylvania close like happened in Atlantic City.”

After rattling off the half dozen surrounding states with casino gaming, Payne noted that New Jersey and Delaware already have Internet gaming, which is why Payne has “been pressing on my end to get our leadership up on information that we need to be competitive with the surrounding states.”

“For me, I’d rather have Internet gambling, fantasy sports betting, fix the small games of chance bill [bar machines], than vote to raise income or sales taxes,” Payne said.

Payne sees reason for optimism with HB 649

The focal point of Payne’s efforts to keep Pennsylvania gaming healthy seems to be HB 649, a bill that would legalize and regulate online gambling in the Keystone State.

Rep. Payne seemed optimistic about the bill.

“I think because we have bipartisan support – representative Kotik and I both introduced this bill and he’s my co-chair on the Democratic side – so we tried to set the tone by saying the two chairman are going to cosponsor the bill and introduce the bill,” Payne told OPR.

“We know it’s been introduced before, however, we’ve done some tweaking to the bill.”

Payne wouldn’t offer odds on his online gambling bill passing in PA – another lesson he says he learned early on.

What he hopes to accomplish is to lay the facts out.

“My job is to introduce legislation in the Gaming Committee that we can present to our leadership team in May and say ‘If we’re serious about this, and we do Internet gaming it would generate this much revenue; fantasy sports this much; fix the small games bill it would do this much; something in private clubs it would do this much.'”

HB 649 is a comprehensive online gaming bill (not limited to online poker), and unlike previous efforts, or an opposing bill introduced by Representative Nick Miccarelli this year (HB 695), Payne’s bill doesn’t contain strict bad actor language that would prohibit PokerStars from applying for a license.

Governor Wolf “open-minded” on gaming expansion

It wasn’t a major campaign issue, but during his run for governor in 2014, Pennsylvania’s new governor, Tom Wolf, was on the record as being opposed to gaming expansion, be it land-based or online.

His opposition was never absolute, and based on Representative Payne’s experiences, it appears the new governor may be amenable to expanded gaming – provided the numbers work.

According to Representative Payne, upon assuming office, Governor Wolf met with legislators individually and asked them to lay out their top two or three issues.

Payne called  Governor Wolf “open minded” to gaming expansion – one of the issues Payne broached.

Payne also noted he now has a monthly meeting with a contact in the governor’s office. Payne said his interactions have been positive.

“So far the governor has been open-minded, and taken the position of  go show me, what it is, how it would work, and what the revenue numbers are.”

“Most people are open-minded about it,” Payne said of most of his colleagues. “Show me how it’s going to work, show me how we’re going to protect the minors and the compulsive gamblers, and show me how the revenue stream will work.”

Responding to critics of regulated online gambling

Payne offered a clear retort to any potential naysayers who fear voting for expanded gambling, saying he doesn’t consider this an expansion of gambling at all.

“Internet gaming is already here,” Payne said. “I’m not trying to expand it, I’m trying to make it legal, and I’m trying to make sure we make sure people aren’t ripped off.”

Payne went on to rhetorically ask, “Where is all that money going? How much money stays in America versus going  overseas?”

In addition to seeing online gaming as a way to keep the Pennsylvania gaming economy healthy, Payne doesn’t buy the arguments against regulation either, particularly when it comes to the effectiveness of the safeguards.

“There are more checks and balances online,” Payne stated. “I think it’s easier to take cash and go off to any casino you want and spend the cash, and it’s tougher to catch compulsive and underage gamblers that way than it is online.”

Payne went on to say,”regulations like out in Nevada will do more to make it difficult for a compulsive gambler or an underage gambler to gamble online than it is to drive out to Hollywood Casino walk in the building with 500 bucks and sit down and start playing.”

It should be noted that there hasn’t been a single documented case of underage gambling at a licensed online gaming site in Nevada, Delaware, or New Jersey.

And, to Payne’s point, there are plenty in brick & mortar casinos, even in Sheldon Adelson’s Sands Bethlehem casino (2009/2010, 2010/2011, 2012, 2013).

“Online you’ll have checks and balances, you have to sign in, do an ID check, an age check, and if you’re on the compulsive gaming list we’re going to know it. If you’re underage we’re going to know that, ” Payne noted.

HR 140 is the first order of business

HB 649 might be the centerpiece to Payne’s efforts, but he called House Resolution 140 (which calls on Congress to defeat RAWA) the first order of business.

On the subject of RAWA, and Sheldon Adelson’s efforts to ban regulated online gambling at the federal level, Payne said, “Once again we see the federal government interfering with state’s rights, whether it’s on this or a number of issues… so I’ve introduced a House Resolution which probably will be the first thing we push forward.”

Payne called HR 140 an “effort to preserve our state’s right to do Internet gaming now or in the future,” adding that he hopes the resolution is passed relatively soon, but indicated this urgency will likely be predicated on what comes of the March 26 hearing in Washington DC on RAWA.

- Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus for OPR is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.
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