Pennsylvania Slots Remain an Uncertainty

Associated Press

As hard as some senators worked to usher through a bill authorizing slot machines at up to eight racetracks, the measure faces an uncertain future as it heads to the House.

A number of House lawmakers have ideas different from those of their Senate counterparts. In addition, bipartisan support will be needed to circumvent conservative House opposition, and a Commonwealth Court decision on Thursday vacated the license granted seven months ago to MTR Gaming for a track near Erie to be named Presque Isle Downs.

The court decision stunned the plaintiffs, MEC Pennsylvania (Magna Entertainment), since both they and MTR Gaming, owner of Mountaineer Park, had reached a settlement to ensure that Erie-area lawmakers would vote for a slot-machine bill. They thought the settlement would preclude the court from deciding the case.

"We never ever expected this," said Mike Jeannot, vice president for MEC Pennsylvania Gaming Inc., which owns The Meadows in suburban Pittsburgh. "We just didn't see this coming, but we'll get it worked out because we don't want it to be a problem for legislation."

MEC Pennsylvania had appealed the license granting by the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission because the commission did not grant it a hearing on an application for the Erie group, Presque Isle Downs Inc.

That leaves the state with four tracks operating in the state, one group newly licensed to build a track in Chester, and three licenses being pursued by a host of would-be track owners.

One thing seems clear: An expansion of gambling beyond slots at the tracks will not fly.

Sen. James Rhoades, R-Schuylkill, found that out Wednesday night during arguments on the slot-machine bill when he tried to insert an amendment authorizing keno terminals at bars or taverns.

It failed, dunked by slots proponents who warned that there was little appetite in the Senate to expand the bill beyond allowing up to 3,000 slots at each of the eight tracks.

The bill passed early Thursday morning, with all 21 Democrats and six Republicans voting for it, and 22 Republicans voting against it.

Many want to know whether House Speaker John M. Perzel, R-Philadelphia, was serious when he talked publicly about including casinos in any gambling bill.

"He very much wants (casinos), but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's going to push for it," Perzel's spokesman Steve Miskin said. "They've got to see exactly what will - and what will not - pass."

For now, members of the House are lining up to amend the bill, some to restrict gambling and others to expand it, Miskin said.

Gov. Ed Rendell, who wants to use revenue from the machines to lower property taxes, on Thursday seemed unconcerned about a slots bill sinking beneath the weight of a casino clause.

"I think the House has heard the message from the Senate," he told reporters after attending a school-funding rally on the Capitol's steps.

To become law, the bill needs to pass the House in an identical form and get the governor's signature. Proponents are in a rush to get the bill passed by the middle of next week, when legislators hope to begin their traditional two-month summer vacation.

The bill could face the same bipartisan dynamic in the House that made its Senate support fleeting.

In the House, there are 108 Republicans and 94 Democrats, meaning that the bill needs 102 votes to pass. As in the Senate, the bill is certain to draw opposition from many Republicans, such as Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks.

Although a House committee recently approved Clymer's bill to put an 18-month moratorium on gambling expansion, a consensus of House members, staffers and lobbyists believe that the votes are there to pass a slots bill.

"We're trying to work in a bipartisan effort to defeat the bill," Clymer said. "My entire time will be put to doing that over the weekend."