‘A Matter of Fairness’: New PA Gambling Proposal Will Target Unregulated Devices Including Skill Games, Senators Say

Written By Kevin Shelly on August 23, 2021
PA gambling legislation to target skill games, unregulated devices

The Pennsylvania state Senate will take another run at new gambling legislation beginning in late September when they reconvene for a new session.

The target of the still-unwritten legislation is apparently every form of gambling device not now regulated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) or PA Lottery.

That’s according to Sen. John Yudichak, an independent who caucuses with Republicans and chairs the Community, Economic & Recreational Development committee, which oversees most gambling legislation.

Hearings, but no legislation

The committee held a series of hearings on unregulated gaming machines last session but produced no concrete legislative proposals before breaking for summer at the end of June.

Sen. Jake Corman, the former Republican majority leader and now President Pro Tempore of the State Senate, a largely ceremonial position, shared the news of a renewed legislative push in an exclusive interview with PlayPennsylvania.

VGT expansion is not part of the proposed legislation

Corman had championed a proposal to widely legalize and tax all gambling devices known as skill games and dramatically add many more video gaming terminals (VGTs) but failed to gain support in the fall of 2020.

The veteran Centre County legislator, who appeared last week at a PGCB hearing to speak in favor of a proposed mini-casino in the State College area, told PlayPennsylvania then that the planned legislation will come from Yudichak’s committee.

He noted during the interview that Attorney General Josh Shapiro had resumed enforcement efforts. Shapiro had halted action more than a year ago, saying he wanted legislative or court guidance. Neither has happened.

Corman also said the initial legislative proposal would not address VGTs. “That will come later,” he said.

His previous proposal had called for the expansion of VGTs as well as legalizing skill games. Instead, the plan for September is only to address “illegal” machines, particularly “games of skill,” Corman told PlayPennsylvania.

Corman said he wants the legislation to be “bipartisan and bi-cameral,” a phrase Yudichak has also used.

A message was left for the Republican Majority Leader, Sen. Kim Ward. Ultimately, Ward sets the legislative agenda and calendar.

State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, a Democrat and the minority chairwoman of the committee led by Yudichak, said she was unaware of his plans for legislation.

Yudichak expands on the plan for legislation

One of Yudichak’s constituents in his district of Luzerne County was murdered last December in an incident involving an illegal video poker gambling machine in a convenience store. Yudichak told PlayPennsylvania the gambling landscape has changed dramatically since a 2017 expansion of the state’s wagering laws.

He said testimony from Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer that more than 20,000 unregulated machines were in his county southwest of Philadelphia, operating without regulation or paying taxes, opened questions about the long-term sustainability of legal gambling in the state.

“We need to implement this as a matter of fairness.”

Which machines exactly will the proposal target? According to Yudichak: “Any device that is not clearly in the law, outside state regulations.”

Casinos and a major device distributor have heard rumors, not details

Peter Shelly, of the casino industry group Pennsylvanians Against Illegal Gambling (PAIG), confirmed his association had heard building talk of legislation but without details. He declined to comment.

Mike Barley, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Skills machine distributor Pace-O-Matic likewise said he heard a legislative proposal was coming, but didn’t know details.

In a statement, Barley said:

“While Pace-O-Matic and Pennsylvania Skill strongly support the regulation and additional taxation of skill games in the Commonwealth, we are surprised to hear that legislation appears to be being drafted without any input from the skill game industry.”

“Additionally, we are concerned that this is a backdoor attempt to legalize VGTs under the guise of skill game regulation. There were a number of hearings in the summer on this issue, and we were not invited to participate. As this issue holds the livelihoods of thousands of small business owners as well as the financial solvency of many of our fraternal groups, like our VFWs and American Legions in the balance, we are hopeful that there will be a well thought out and reasoned approach to this legislation.”

And since it is PA, politics will play a role

So will something concrete come out of all this?

That depends on the exact language and the politics.

Ward, who has not weighed in on the possibility of legislation, might or might not support such a proposal.

While she and Corman are generally in sync, that’s not always the case. Both, however, recently returned donations from skill game lobbyists, according to an Erie Times story.

In a follow-up story in late June, the Erie Times said legislation would likely appear within the week. That, however, has not happened.

Muddying the Republican waters, the party is in the midst of an internecine skirmish. Prominent now is the far-right “Trump won” faction. Then there are the more moderate Republicans, such as Corman, who is up for reelection and has been mentioned as a roadblock by Trump loyalists intent on reviewing votes.

Yudichak is in the unique position of having defected from the Democrats. And while he is not Republican, he caucuses with that party. He had discussed that plan with Corman before making it a reality. Adding to his personal political equation, Yudichak campaigned and fund-raised for President Joe Biden.

Additionally, Shapiro, the Commonwealth’s current top law enforcement official, would enforce any new gaming laws. Many believe him to be the likely Democrat nominee for governor, though there’s been no official announcement.

Incumbent Tom Wolf has served two terms and cannot run again. According to a Harrisburg news outlet, Shapiro is working to “clear the field” behind the scenes.

The coming election, not legislation, is likely to dominate Harrisburg in the fall.

Lead image via Dreamstime.

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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