PENNSYLVANIA House panel eyes the slots at racetracks
Area lawmakers say they would support the bill, but they want to know where the tax revenue will go..
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Some local lawmakers say they want to tap into that extra cash Pennsylvania residents drop each day into slot machines at horse racing tracks in West Virginia and Delaware.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives' Tourism and Recreational Development committee agreed last week, at the suggestion of state Rep. Rod Wilt of Greenville, R-17th, to study the effects of allowing slot machines at the state's four racetracks.
"I really believe its not something we can continue to ignore," Wilt said. "Other states are deriving millions of dollars in revenue from our citizens. I think we should take a look at it. The four tracks are strategically located within a two-hour ride of most people in Pennsylvania."
Track names: Those tracks are The Meadows in Houston, Washington County; Penn National, near Grantville, Dauphin County; The Downs at Pocono, near Wilkes-Barre in Luzerne; and Philadelphia Park in Bensalem, Bucks County.
Wilt's proposed study comes after an announcement last week by state Rep. Tom Petrone, a Pittsburgh Democrat, that he will introduce a bill this fall that would authorize referendums on the issue in those four counties.
Up to voters: Voters in those counties would ultimately decide if they want slot machines at the racetracks.
Petrone's bill would not allow slot machines in the 20 off-track betting parlors in the state, including one in Union Township, that are run by the parent companies of the four racetracks.
"It's pretty obvious our racetracks in Pennsylvania are hurting, and this will help them," Petrone told the Associated Press. "Without slot machines, they're not generating the dollars they need to keep the [horse racing] purses at the level they need to attract topflight horses."
A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association, a lobbying group to promote the four tracks, said business at the Philadelphia and Washington County tracks are down 20 to 30 percent because of competition in West Virginia and Delaware.
Wilt said he would like to see an even broader area allowed to vote on the referendums, possibly making it a regional issue, rather than a county one.
"I think the gaming issue is not only important to track owners, it's important to 32,000 other people in this state who make their living through agriculture who would benefit," he said. "You can't turn your cheek on the agriculture industry, which is our No. 1 industry in Pennsylvania."
Farmers are the ones who supply the horses and the feed for the tracks, he added.
Pros and cons: Wilt said he wants to the committee to look at both the benefits and the problems that result from having slot machines at racetracks.
"I want to invite community leaders and county officials that host these racetracks with slot machines and see if in fact there are big enough cons to outweigh the pros," he said.
The pros including generating millions of dollars to fund statewide initiatives such as the state lottery system, which helps pay for prescription drugs and rent rebates for senior citizens, education and economic development. Local lawmakers are split on their support of such a bill.
State Rep. Richard Stevens of Grove City, R-8th, and state Sen. Robert Robbins of Greenville, R-50th, say they don't support gambling and would rather focus on economic development in other industries.
State Rep. Frank LaGrotta of Ellwood City, D-10th, would support the idea but only if it included riverboat gambling and legalizing video poker in taverns and bars.
"Slots will help the track, but it's not nearly as lucrative as riverboat gambling. Every morning a bus picks up 20 senior citizens near my house and takes them to another state where they leave their money gambling," he said. "That's discretionary income they could be spending here."
In the past: A statewide referendum on riverboat gambling, video poker and slots at the racetracks passed a House vote in 1999, but it didn't make it through the state senate.
State Reps. Chris Sainato of New Castle, D-9th, and Michael Gruitza of Hermitage, D-7th, say they would probably support allowing referendums for slot machines in counties with racetracks, but they need to know more about where the cash will end up.
Sainato, who is also a member of the house tourism and recreational development committee, said introducing slots to racetracks won't affect Lawrence County directly, but it might help the off-track betting parlor in Union Township that is owned by Ladbrokes, the same company that operates The Meadows in Washington County.