By Bertram de Souza
There are at least 17,000 illegal poker machines operating in Pennsylvania, and Gov. Ed Rendell appears to have concluded, quite correctly, that it’s an exercise in futility to try to pull the plug on them. There just aren’t enough state employees to enforce the law that prohibits such devices in bars and private clubs. So, the governor has come up with an idea that the people of Pennsylvania say they like.
Rendell has proposed legalizing video poker machines and using the revenue to help offset tuition costs for thousands of Pennsylvania college students, the Associated Press reported recently.
“Legalization of this existing business would free up law enforcement resources better dedicated to the prevention and investigation of serious crimes including murder, sexual assault and drug sales,” State Police Commissioner Frank Pawlowski told the wire service.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reporting on the results of a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, said that 62 percent of the respondents backed Gov. Rendell’s proposal.
Pennsylvania is already earning hundreds of millions of dollars from slot-machine casinos that have cropped up throughout the state ever since those gambling devices were made legal by an act of the Legislature — pushed through by the governor. There has been talk of expanding gambling to permit table games in the casinos, the way West Virginia has done, but until public support is built, Rendell believes the state should take advantage of what is already occurring in private establishments.
He believes Pennsylvania could generate about $550 million annually, which would help about 170,000 students attending community and four-year colleges.
As Rendell was discussing his plan to generate more money for education, there was a moment of clarity about Ohio, which is being hamstrung by residents who have a cockeyed view of — and a hypocritical stance on — gambling. Three times the voters have said no to casino-type gaming, but yet Ohio continues to offer an ever-expanding state-run lottery, horse racing and bingo.
And, the state permits slots-type machines such as Tic-Tac-Fruit in bars and other locations.
There reportedly are 50,000 such devices in operation in Ohio, and only the most naive believe the rules that have been establish to govern them are being followed.
Currently, the machines are portrayed as providing games of skill, which means they are not considered gambling devices.
Under current regulations, a player cannot win cash, but can get a one-time non-cash prize not to exceed $10. Gas cards or vouchers for venues such as Chuck E. Cheese’s, Dave & Buster’s or Cedar Point are handed out.
But as was argued in this space in September 2007, the 50,000 machines are a gold mine for the operators, which is why they can still be found all over the state.
When Marc Dann was Ohio attorney general and before he was outed as a slug, he did yeoman’s work in uncovering the extent of illegal gambling in the state. He contended that hundreds of millions of dollars were being made by the operators and manufacturers of Tic-Tac-Fruit and similar machines, with the state receiving no benefit. However, a total ban was averted when the General Assembly passed a law placing restrictions on the payouts.
But it would be foolhardy to believe the regulations now in effect are being followed to the letter.
As one knowledgeable source told this writer, “If you’re a regular patron of a bar and you play the machines, you can get cash. You win a bunch of gas cards and then sell them back to the bar owner. Of course, you have to be a regular.”
So, what’s the answer?
Gov. Ted Strickland should find a way for the state to get in on the action. One way this can be done is for Ohio to become the distributor of the computer chips that enable the slot machines to record the number of games played and provide the winning combinations.
Currently, it costs $1,500 for a chip to be installed. Each installation permits $5,000 worth of action. The machine must then be rebooted. That’s another $1,500.
It’s clear there’s a lot of money to be made — by the state, if it so chooses.