In a surprising development that came together quickly this week, the Pennsylvania House Gaming Oversight Committee passed Internet gaming bill HB 649 Wednesday by a vote of 18-8. It's a small step, but the most significant one made by online poker at the legislative level since New Jersey legalized iGaming in 2013.
This committee passage is much different than the one in California earlier this year, which was only done as a procedural move so that the bill could remain on the table for the rest of the session. Rep. John Payne, who sponsored the bill and chairs the committee, is making a real attempt to move iGaming forward in Pennsylvania.
The next step would be for the bill to be read and then passed by the full House, something that has never come close to happening in a California legislative branch. It would then have to pass the Senate.
This doesn't have to happen this year in Pennsylvania's legislative system. The committee vote will carry over to 2016. However, Poker Players Alliance executive director John Pappas does expect HB 649 to go to a House vote at some point, and thinks it could happen sooner rather than later.
"This could slip into next year, but our goal is to make sure it happens this year," Pappas said. "We're working toward having it come up on the House floor as soon as it makes sense, as soon as there's the votes for it to pass. I think there's a legitimate chance this could happen in weeks, not months."
Another possible path forward for regulation that doesn't require a House vote but would certainly be boosted by one is for Internet gaming to be included in the state budget for 2016, which is currently under discussion. The budget is expected to be resolved before Christmas, but it's difficult to predict given that it's already 130 days past due.
"There's no hiding the fact that Pennsylvania is in desperate budget crisis and looking for potential revenue streams," Pappas said. "Internet gaming is a way to raise revenue without raising taxes. Having this legislative body on record in support of it is a good pathway to having Internet gaming part of the larger budget discussion."
Payne's bill was one of many introduced in the Pennsylvania state legislature this year, but it is the realistic with a 14 percent tax rate on gaming revenue that is similar to the 15 percent being implemented in New Jersey. There would be a $5 million fee for operators to obtain an online gaming license, substantially more than the $400,000 in New Jersey, but equal to what is being proposed in California legislation.
Payne continued to push for his legislation despite a scathing attack ad from Sheldon Adelson's Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, which accused him of "working hard to legalize predatory online gambling" that targets children and seniors.
"Rep. Payne has been a champion through and through on this," Pappas said. "He is grateful for the PPA coming to his defense in the wake of those really misguided ads against him that were put out by Sheldon Adelson. He heard from so many poker players in the state saying we stand with you, we support what you're doing. I think that gave him the confidence to move forward even in the face of those misleading ads."
The PPA is organizing a statewide PPR campaign pushing for regulation and an advocacy page for Pennsylvania residents to encourage House members to put HB 649 up for a vote. That there were eight dissenting votes in the committee shows that the path won't be easy.
"There are some members who are always going to be opposed to all gaming proposals," Pappas said. "There's work to be done, no doubt about it. It's not a slam dunk. What we need most is players in Pennsylvania who care about this contacting their lawmakers and saying 'please support this bill, and support it this year.'"
*Image courtesy of Luciano Adragna/FreeImages.com.