Lancaster Lawmakers One Step Closer To Blocking VGTs In Amish Country

Posted on June 19, 2019

Two Pennsylvania state senators are fast-tracking legislation that will give Lancaster County the right to opt-out of the video gaming terminal (VGT) market.

One, Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, believes his measure could become law by the end of June. His co-sponsor, Sen. Ryan P. Aument, is also from the Lancaster area.

The Senate approved the bill on Tuesday.

Lancaster communities want to right to say ‘no’ to VGTs

Lancaster is a large county that is known for its agriculture and its significant Amish community. Along with the presence of tradition-bound Amish comes a conservative position on avoiding gambling.

For instance, each of Lancaster’s 60 municipalities previously opted out of hosting mini-casinos, also known as Class 4 or satellite casinos.

But a VGT opt-out was not an option written into Pennsylvania’s 2017 casino expansion law.

As Martin sees it:

“Citizens should have a voice in the gambling debate, which is why we sought to restore the principle of local control.”

Only counties hosting one of the state’s casinos were allowed to opt-out of installing terminals. Each of the 12 counties with casinos said no to VGTs.

VGT regs limit machines to only approved truck stops

VGTs installations can only have five machines; only approved truck stops may host them.

The terminals are similar to slot machines as a random number generator determines the outcome. The machines are cash-based and accept a maximum bet of $5 per round. PA Gaming Control Board (PGCB) stipulates a base return-to-player (RTP) rate of 85 cents to a dollar. That’s the same RTP as PA slot machines.

Under the law’s definition, a truck stop must:

  • Have diesel islands.
  • Sell an average of 50,000 gallons of diesel monthly.
  • Have at least 20 truck parking spaces.
  • Have a convenience store.
  • Maintain at least a 3-acre parcel of land.
  • Sell PA Lottery tickets.
  • Offer showers for drivers.

What comes next for VGT opt-out legislation?

For the VGT opt-out to become law, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives also needs to support the opt-out option.

Finally, Gov. Tom Wolf, who has remained “quiet,” is likely to either sign the measure or simply allow it to become law without any action on his part, Martin told Play Pennsylvania.

While Martin and the bill’s other sponsor are both Republicans, the bill has bipartisan support.

Once the bill goes through the governor’s office, it immediately becomes law.

Then municipalities in counties of a qualifying population level  – currently just Lancaster – can then opt-out with the simple approval of a resolution, said Martin.

Legislative approval triggers a time clock

Towns have 60 days pass an opt-out resolution from the time the bill becomes law. The bill also has a provision for opting back in.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

PGCB also declined to comment as the board routinely does not comment on pending legislation.

The gambling regulatory body has already approved seven VGT applications in six counties. PennLive reported that five were approved in a batch on April 17. Those sites could be operating by mid-July.

County has five locations with conditional approvals

Five of the more than 60 pending VGT applications are in Lancaster County.

All five of the Lancaster locations have already met conditional approval criteria set by the gaming board.

Three of the Lancaster applications are by Rutter’s, a York-based convenience store chain with 70 outlets in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia.

Rutter’s convenience store chain wants 20 locations in PA

PGCB approved Rutter’s first location, which is near Mifflintown in Juniata County, on June 12.

That made Rutter’s the first chain convenience business approved for VGTs in Pennsylvania.

The approval opens the door for further Rutter’s locations, including those in Lancaster County. Rutter’s partnered with Penn National to provide the equipment.

The chain’s marketing manager, Alison Hummel, said this week that Rutter’s “loves being in Lancaster County.”

However, she declined to discuss the proposed legislation. Once approved, the legislation would lead to barring Lancaster locations from hosting VGTs.

Strasburg proposal met with a lawsuit

Additionally, Martin said he understands the pushback against VGTs that also includes lawsuits in at least three proposed locations. One of those locations is a proposed Rutter’s site in Strasburg, Lancaster County.

The borough, where the truck stop is located, implemented new zoning rules to try to stop Rutter’s from offering VGTs. The company is challenging the decision in court.

Strasburg was a key filming location in the 1985 Harrison Ford movie, Witness.

The small borough trades its connections to the Amish people and related tourism, which includes a Bible-themed theater close to the proposed VGT location.

The community’s mayor and police chief both oppose VGTs.

Mayor Bruce Ryder told Lancaster Online:

“We are not in favor of the video gaming terminals but that (decision) has been taken away from our hands. It was written in such a way that municipalities really have no say.”

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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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