VGT proponents are making another push at legalization for bars, taverns in PA

Video Gaming Terminal Debate In PA Ramps Up, Threatens To Derail Online Gambling

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The topic that has the biggest opportunity to derail talks of a gaming expansion in Pennsylvania is the idea of placing video gaming terminals in taverns around the state.

While the PA Senate has more or less declared VGTs a dead issue, the House appears not to have gotten the memo. Lawmakers on both sides of the issue have penned op-eds or letters to the editor on the topic.

The dynamic for proponents of PA online gambling is serious. VGTs have the ability to prevent any sort of gaming package from reaching the finish line. And that could mean online gambling does not become legal this fall, alongside a number of other gaming expansions.

Not giving up on VGTs

Rep. Mark Mustio, who has been the biggest proponent of VGTs’ in the House, has been on a media spree of late, with pieces appearing in a variety of state media outlets.

He’s pushing the idea that VGTs can help solve PA’s budget shortfall. That’s the best indication that the issue isn’t dead in Harrisburg, or at least that House Republicans aren’t going to give it up without a fight.

Mustio contends the legalization of VGTs will mean “$300 to $400 million annually for Pennsylvania” in a recent op-ed.

While that’s possible, all of that is not necessarily new revenue for the state. VGTs are all but certain to cannibalize some amount of revenue that casinos currently generate. Gov. Tom Wolf has consistently said he wants “real revenue” from any gaming expansion in the state. That appears to be a nod to the idea that VGTs would not be entirely additive for state coffers.

Additionally, VGTs aren’t going to make that much money in the current fiscal year. That year already started in July, with no new gaming measures yet passed.

Meanwhile, most casinos (outside of Parx Casinos and Sands Bethlehem) are for the legalization of online gambling as a way that will help them generate more revenue (for themselves and the state) without cannibalizing existing streams.

Casinos vs. bars for VGTs

Mustio is positioning the debate as local business vs. big casinos. Here’s an excerpt from the op-ed he wrote:

Why would our governor and some legislators coldly turn their backs on the hardworking small business owners who have elected them into office? Consider the million-dollar ad campaigns being run by Las Vegas casinos. Casinos don’t want to share an inch of the playing field with small businesses and are in fact lobbying hard to silence them completely. Don’t let them silence you!

Here he is referring to an effort by Las Vegas Sands (and Sands Bethlehem) owner Sheldon Adelson to quash VGTs in the state.

Bar and tavern owners ramp up advocacy

Mustio isn’t the only one stepping up pressure for the legislature to pass VGTs.

Tavern and bar owners held an event in Dauphin County on Wednesday to state their case for VGTs:

One of the complaints by BrewTaGo is that big businesses can sell the bottles cheaper than they can afford to and State Representative Stan Saylor says 12 Pennsylvania casinos are winning out over mom & pop taverns and restaurants like the BrewTaGo in having the video gaming terminals.

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All of this complicates the gaming expansion

The bottom line: The Senate and Wolf appear to want nothing to do with VGTs. House Republicans appear unwilling to let it go as an issue that’s popular with some of the businesses in their districts.

It all adds up to a possible stalemate on gaming that could nothing — VGTs, online gambling or anything else — gets enacted by lawmakers on the gaming front.

- Dustin Gouker has been a sports journalist for more than 15 years, working as a reporter, editor and designer -- including stops at The Washington Post and the D.C. Examiner. He has played poker recreationally for his entire adult life and has written about poker since 2008.
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