The bill has the potential to be so much more. Rep. George Dunbar tells Online Poker Report that the bill is the intended vehicle for comprehensive gambling expansion, including online gambling.
In Pennsylvania, legislation that generates revenue must originate in the House. However, the House passed two gambling expansion bills introduced by Dunbar last year, only to see them ignored by the Senate.
With revenue from gaming expansion needed to fill budget appropriations, the House took a different approach this time around. Rather than passing Dunbar’s H 392 — the same omnibus gambling bill it sent the Senate last year — the House pushed through what essentially amounts to a shell bill ready to be filled out.
“We put in one thing, tablets in airports, and basically said, ‘You load it up with what you want in it,’” Dunbar said in a phone interview. “It puts the ball in their court.”
To motivate the Senate to hit the ball back this time, the House also sent over a budget bill that includes $375 million from gambling expansions. The current fiscal year, which was budgeted for $100 million from gambling expansions expected to come mostly from upfront licensing fees in online gambling, concludes at the end of June.
Dunbar noted that even if an omnibus gambling bill miraculously passed next week, there wouldn’t be enough time to collect the licensing fees before the end of June. So that $100 million is part of the $375 million, carrying over to the next fiscal year that begins July 1.
The $375 million would require the full allotment of expansions in Dunbar’s H 392, including online gambling, daily fantasy sports and off-track betting parlors. It does not include the controversial issue of video gaming terminals in private establishments, which the House listed as a possible alternative revenue source.
Dunbar stated that the House usually doesn’t send the Senate its budget bill until late June, but bumped up that timeline so that the Senate understands the stakes with gambling expansion.
“We sent up the bill for them to load up along with the budget for them to figure out this is what we need to do to get this done,” Dunbar said. “It’s up to them to change the budget or send the bill back to us with everything on it.”
The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Community, Economic and Recreational Development to decide on what language the Senate wants to include in a gambling expansion bill.
Two iGaming bills have been introduced in the Senate this year. One, S 477, introduced by Sen. Thomas Killon, is a carbon copy of Dunbar’s bill. The other, S 524, introduced by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, includes a 25-percent tax rate that Dunbar contends is unrealistic. Dunbar’s bill sets the rate at 14 percent.
If the CERD committee fills in the bill, it would go to the Senate floor and then back to the House for final approval. Dunbar indicated that this could all happen in the span of two weeks.
“We just need them to tell us what they want,” Dunbar said. “We’ve told them what we want, and they’ve taken no action for some reason. We truly don’t know why. It’s time for them to put up. That’s where we’re at. I’m sure they’re going to come up with something.”
Dunbar considers May 26 the deadline to get a bill done. That is the date the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gave lawmakers by which to fix the local share tax. (A tax on casino slot revenue was struck down as unconstitutional in September.)
This fix is another part of Dunbar’s bill. He said he doesn’t see the legislature passing a separate local share bill without gambling expansion. He also wouldn’t count on the court giving the legislature another extension to come up with a fix, as it did in January.
“We cannot pass the budget at the end of June with the same type of charades put on last year,” Dunbar said. “If we’re going to do this, it has to be now. It’s going to be resolved in the next two months as far as I’m concerned.”
Dunbar is the refreshingly rare politician who admits to playing online poker regularly before Black Friday. He said that he played on PartyPoker until it left the US market, then moved to Full Tilt, where he had funds frozen until going through the remissions process. If Pennsylvania authorizes online poker, Dunbar indicated that he looks forward to returning to the virtual tables.
“I always enjoyed playing,” Dunbar said. “It’s something I could do and still be in touch with my family at the same time, rather than going to a casino and being away from everybody. I’m married with four kids, so it’s not easy to find time. Hopefully we can get back to those days.”