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Pennsylvania Moves Closer to New Casino Legislation; Table Games on Menu

By John Guerriero, Erie Times-News, Pa.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 16, 2009--You can push the button or pull the arm on the slot machines.

You can bet on the horses.

How soon before you start rolling the dice in Pennsylvania's casinos?

It could come sooner rather than later as the state potentially moves closer to table games in casinos.

State Rep. Flo Fabrizio, of Erie, D-2nd Dist., said that state Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Greene County, sent a memo asking House colleagues to sign up as co-sponsors of his gaming bill legislation.

DeWeese introduced table games legislation in the last House session, but it never reached the floor.

Fabrizio said he hasn't signed on to the new bill because he hasn't seen it. But the lawmaker from Erie said he supports table games because they would provide another source of revenue for the state and create jobs.

DeWeese's new bill could be introduced as early as this week.

Fabrizio said the measure would first come to the House Gaming Oversight Committee, of which he is vice chairman.

Fabrizio said committee hearings would be held throughout the state this summer, including one in Erie. He requested one for his hometown.

"It's got to go through the committee process. Give the public an opportunity for input," Fabrizio said.

Fabrizio said he wouldn't expect the bill to be introduced in the full House until fall because lawmakers are working on the state budget and dealing with legislation that would legalize video poker machines in taverns, clubs and restaurants.

Fabrizio said he couldn't predict whether table games would pass. He said there are three camps: those who want to put in table games now, those who want to wait until all of the state's slots-only parlors are running and those who oppose casino gambling.

The public seems to want table games.

In March, a Franklin & Marshall College poll showed statewide support, 63 to 32 percent, for allowing Presque Isle Downs & Casino and the state's other casinos to offer blackjack, roulette, craps and other table games.

But Gov. Ed Rendell still would rather wait until the licensed casino in Pittsburgh and the two in Philadelphia open before the state considers table games, Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

Pittsburgh's casino is scheduled to open in August. Construction has not started on the two Philadelphia casinos.

Rendell would rather review the effect of table games before any expansion, Ardo said.

But Ardo said if the Legislature approves a table-games bill, the governor "will certainly have to take a look at it carefully."

Gregory Fajt, chairman of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, said active talks about table games are continuing in Harrisburg. "But ultimately whether we have table games this year or next year or never is within the purview of the Legislature," he said.

Whatever the lawmakers and the governor agree on, the gaming board would adopt "with the necessary oversight and regulations that come with table games," he said.

Richard Knight, chief executive of Presque Isle Downs, said table games are not a sure thing even if the Legislature and the governor approve.

"I'm still in the wait-and-see category," he said.

Knight said he is waiting and seeing how much the state would tax table games.

He said the tax could not be too high since the state already taxes slot machines at 55 percent, and table games would require hiring about six or seven employees per shift -- not counting the extra personnel required for security, surveillance and cashiers.

Knight suggested a tax rate of about 10 percent for table games to make the expansion profitable.

The general mood among taxpayers would be higher taxation for casinos, Knight said. "That's fine. But it's also the casino's prerogative to say, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' if it was too high," he said.

JOHN GUERRIERO can be reached at 870-1690 or by e-mail.

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Copyright (c) 2009, Erie Times-News, Pa.

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