Table games: that’s a wrap

A 103-89 House vote has finally wrapped up the 2009 budget process. A bill legalizing table games in Pennsylvania casinos is headed to Governor Rendell’s desk. He’s expected to sign it into law tomorrow – just one day ahead of the deadline he set to avoid 1,000 state employee layoffs.

Lawmakers are counting on the initiative to provide at least 250 million dollars in General Fund revenue this year, mostly from multi-million dollar fees that will be charged to casinos applying for table games licenses. Official word from the Gaming Control Board is that it will take six to nine months for the games to get up and running, though House Democratic staffers speculated after the vote that Pennsylvanians could be playing blackjack, craps, roulette and other games by Memorial Day.

House Majority Leader Todd Eachus’ reaction to the end of the 2009 budget saga? “Hallelujah.”  He noted how long it’s taken to finish things up. “We had a budget briefing that was scheduled today that the governor had scheduled for next year’s budget. We cancelled that. He’ll be rescheduling it.” Eachus says he’s confident that next year’s process will be smoother – but added the qualifier, “I can only pray.”

So what’s in the bill?

The Senate is expected to vote on an amended version of Senate Bill 711 tonight, hours after it was approved by a joint conference committee.

So what’s in the bill? Here are some highlights from the eight page summary distributed at the committee.

SB 711 would…

–Set an initial 16 percent tax rate on table games profits. (14% state; 1 % county; 1% municipal.) This would drop down to 12-1-1 after two years.

–Establish at $16.5 million licensing fee for Category 1 and 2 casinos, and a $7.5 million fee for Category 3s.

–Increase the Category 3 slot machine cap from 500 to 600. The measure reopens “the process for the remaining Category 3 license to allow all interested persons to compete.” It would also create a new Cat 3 license in 2017 if all other Cat 3 licenses are awarded and operational by then.

–Casinos would now be allowed to extend unsecured interest-free lines of credit to gamblers, though credit card advances and debit card swipes would be prohibited.

Included in the reform portion:

–New Gaming Control Board members’ outside salaries would be limited to 15% of their annual board salary, with exemptions for pension benefits, family-controlled businesses and “passive or unearned income.”

–The State Police would conduct background checks on future executive directors, directors of Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement, chief counsels or directors of the Office of Enforcement Counsel.

–At least one on-site public hearing would be required before the awarding of a new license or the approval of  a facility redesign.

–Future board employees, independent contractors and Attorney General, Department of Revenue or State Police staffers who deal with casinos would need to sign affidavits promising not to work for applicants or licensees for two years following the termination of their jobs.

The measure transfers $40 million from the Race Horse Development Fund to the General Fund over the next four years, as well as $12 million in unused funds from “law enforcement grant money.” The Gaming Control Board will be appropriated $2.1 million to get table games up and running.

Here’s yer table games update

When lawmakers return to Harrisburg tomorrow, table games will be topic number one.

(That’s a sentence you’ve read a lot since October, huh?)

The driving force behind this week’s action will be a compromise hammered out by legislative leaders in late December. According to numerous reports, the deal would create a new category three “resort casino” license in 2017, as well as reopen bidding on the outstanding license that already exists. PLS/PoliticsPA’s Alex Roarty reports, “the license fee for category one and two casinos would remain $16.5 million, and category three licenses would stay $7.5 million. The bill sets a state tax rate of 14 percent this year that drops to 12 percent in 2011. It also mandates a two percent local-share levy for counties and municipalities.”

Speaking to reporters in the hallway, House Majority Leader Todd Eachus confirmed a deal, and said he’s hoping for a final vote on “Wednesday or Thursday.” He says House members will be briefed on the agreement tomorrow. He’ll push for a non-concurrence vote on the Senate’s table games bill as soon as the session gets underway, and will then work to set up a joint House-Senate conference committee to implement the agreement’s details.

Meantime, the Rendell Administration is laying groundwork for the mass state worker layoffs the governor says will be needed if the bill doesn’t pass by week’s end. Secretary of Administration Naomi Wyatt has sent a memo to cabinet secretaries spelling out how many people each department should let go. 333 Department of Public Welfare employees would be furloughed, according to her guidelines. Corrections and the State Police would also be hit hard, with 299 and 112 respective furloughs. Four more people would be severed from the already hard-hit Historical and Museum Commission. In all, Wyatt is calling for 995 layoffs – just under the thousand promised by Rendell.