One of the primary beneficiaries is the district represented by Sen. Lisa Boscola, who’s been among online gambling’s biggest opponents in the state. Online casinos and poker, of course, were a part of that gaming bill, and she voted to approve it.
Boscola uncovered $20 million in stagnant money from an old casino fund, and she’s moved to allocate it via the bill to a new science center in her jurisdiction.
Boscola represents District 16 on the Pennsylvania legislative map. It stretches from east of Allentown across Northampton County in the Lehigh Valley region. The district includes the towns of Easton and Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is home to Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, the East Coast facility in the international gambling empire of Sheldon Adelson.
Sands Bethlehem opened in 2009 with more than 300 guest rooms and close to 140,000 square feet of gaming space. There’s an outlet center of a similar size attached to the property, and it has an event center for concerts and such.
The property has provided a serious revenue infusion to Bethlehem and the surrounding Lehigh Valley. It has invested around $800 million in its footprint, and it employs more than 2,500 residents. Boscola calls it an anchor for growth in the region.
And therein were her primary reservations about iGaming.
Adelson is the world’s largest opponent of online gambling, long advocating for a federal ban. He has nearly unlimited money money to throw behind the counter-cause.
It’s no surprise that Boscola shares the view of the massive casino she represents.
Up until recently, Boscola had been a loyal mouthpiece for Adelson’s agenda. She frequently spoke about the perils of online gambling, including this little nugget from Lehigh Valley Live in 2015:
It’s so much easier to get addicted when you’re at your house. When you go to a brick-and-mortar [casino], you have to physically go there and play. I’m even afraid that students will be doing it at their homes.
Boscola’s go-to script included much of the same, tired rhetoric used by those with brick-and-mortar business interests who don’t understand that online gambling helps land-based casinos, and does not hurt them.
To her credit, Boscola did not hide her motivations:
I know how hard it was to get the Bethlehem Sands here, and because of the brick-and-mortar facilities, I have to try to protect it.
Boscola argued that online gambling would cannibalize revenue from brick-and-mortar casinos, like the one in her district. This argument was presented on multiple occasions despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary.
The Sands property generates more than $500 million in revenue for itself each year, and it pays more than $200 million of that to the state. By those numbers, it is the state’s second-largest casino behind Parx.
Sands has been the subject of possible acquisition of late. MGM Resorts International was once a suitor, but that never happened. Now, a New York City investment firm is looking into buying the property.
Not surprisingly, iGaming’s two biggest opponents were the two senators whose districts contain the state’s biggest brick-and-mortar casinos.
Boscola represents the Sands district, and Robert Tomlinson represents Parx’s district in Bucks County. As expected, Tomlinson voted against the iGaming legislation.
Boscola, though, voted in support.
Although she stood her ground for a long time, Boscola seemed to realize that it was only a matter of time for iGaming in her state. She was preparing for the possibility as early as 2015:
It’s gaining a lot of traction because of the structural deficit in our budget. It’s not going to be that easy to get passed, but it’s got momentum.
Gov. Tom Wolf gave his support in the end, dismissing the notionsthat online gambling would affect brick-and-mortar revenue. Wolf’s own budget proposals had previously forecast $250 million in gaming revenue.
That budget deficit did ultimately factor into the passage of iGaming legislation. Boscola was prudent enough to hedge her district’s financial future.
Her district’s neighbor to the west is District 18, which is represented by Sen. Pat Browne. Browne happens to be the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and he and Boscola describe themselves as a “dynamic duo” when it comes to funding projects in their districts.
Boscola and Browne uncovered $20 million of unallocated money in the Pennsylvania Gaming Economic Development and Tourism Fund. Casinos have been paying into the fund since 2007, and the allocation requires two contiguous counties to make use of the money.
Apart from representatives from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Lehigh Valley duo is the first to request access to it.
The money will be used to help fund a new $130 million expansion for the Allentown-based Da Vinci Science Center.
According to The Morning Call, the expansion will be located in Easton, which is in Boscola’s district. The company’s primary facility is located in Allentown, which belongs to Browne’s jurisdiction.
The new science center is expected to span 170,000 square feet and include a 500,000-gallon aquarium, an IMAX theater, a conference center, and a catering department. Easton’s mayor says it will attract 400,000 new tourists per year. His city will contribute another $30 million to the project.
What was the price for Boscola’s support of the gaming package with iGaming, despite Sands’ protests? The $20 million probably didn’t hurt.