|By John L. Micek, The Morning Call,
Allentown, Pa.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 24, 2012--HARRISBURG -- Faced with across-the-border competition for gamblers' hard-earned dollars, Pennsylvania's still-emerging casino industry needs to up its game, a top state House Republican with oversight of the industry said Thursday.
And if they're looking for clues on how to do that, casino bosses might want to follow the lead of Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem. With its hotel and shopping mall and soon-to-open performance space, the Lehigh Valley's bustling casino is "a good working concept" for the state's casino industry, House Gaming Control Committee Chairman Curt Schroder, R-Chester, said.
"While Pennsylvania has a limited number of casinos and they're partially protected by distance, there's nothing we can do to protect them from competition across the border," Schroder said. "It will behoove them to step it up to see what other kinds of amenities and attractions they can offer to maintain their level of visitation."
The Sands will open its 3,500-capacity performance space, the Sands Bethlehem Event Center on May 16. Among the performers on tap are country star Alan Jackson, the reunited Beach Boys and crooner Paul Anka.
Schroder's remarks came as senior officials from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board went before the House Appropriations Committee Thursday to make their annual budget pitch. The board would like $38.1 million in 2012-13, an increase of 1.7 percent.
In a nod to tradition, Schroder was allowed to ask questions of Gaming Board Chairman William H. Ryan and Executive Director Kevin O'Toole.
Ryan, who briefly served as acting attorney general after the inauguration of Gov. Tom Corbett last year, used part of his time before the Appropriations Committee to underline the need to pass legislation transferring control of the gaming board's Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement (BIE) from the gaming board to the attorney general's office.
Critics have compared the current arrangement to putting judges in charge of prosecutors. Ryan told lawmakers Thursday that he's barred from asking investigators about their activities and the current arrangement is unworkable.
"We have a large contingent of employees who are not responsible to the board," he said in response to questions from a Democratic member of the panel. "That can be dangerous and it's not good management."
Under the attorney general's office, BIE would be considered a law enforcement agency, allowing other agencies, such as the state police, to share sensitive information involving casinos and the people who own or run them. The inability to do that, critics say, has prevented gambling regulators from knowing all they should. The attorney general's office would vet BIE information for presentation to the Gaming Board, where licensing decisions are made.
Earlier this year, the House passed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, that would make the switch. It's been languishing in the Senate, where a senior Republican, Jane Earll of Erie County, has steadfastly opposed it.
On Thursday, Schroder said he's hopeful that the bill will be passed into law before he and Earll leave the Legislature at year's end. Both lawmakers have announced that they're not running for re-election this fall.
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