( The Fix Is In: Part 1 described how House Gaming Oversight Chairman Dante Santoni created a monster amendment that rewrote the table games bill; Part 2 describes how some Representatives tried, and failed, to fight the bill on the floor, and were stifled when a slick parliamentary move forced debate and further amendments to end.)
Part 3: Ever closer.
Last night, the House passed the table games bill â its sundry earmarks, provisions to let the casinos offer credit to slots players, extension for Foxwoods to get up and running, and comically low tax rates and license fees still in place â by a vote of 103-92.
The bill is being debated tonight Senate. where it may face a tougher vote.You can watch the debate live, on the Senate's own live video feed. It's fun. Really.
This means, of course, that citizens still have a chance to tell their representatives what they think of the bill.
Here's what I think about it: the Senate should reject the bill.
It's absurdly lopsided, offering massive concessions to the casinos for a tiny benefit to the state: a measley few hundred million dollars of billion in the total budget.
It's been corrupted: the bill is full of un-examined earmarks that should never see the light of day.
And it's wrong: it's a bill which empowers a predatory industry, one which has built its profits not on the casual one-time visitor but overwhelmingly on people who play in ways that hurt them and their families. This bill gives the casinos the tools â like credit â to exploit all the harder and faster.
If the bill cannot be defeated, it should be amended. Credit should be banned. The extension for Foxwoods should be erased. The taxes should be tripled, and the licensing fee should be determined by public auction.
If the General Assembly and Governor Rendell care, as they claim to, about gambling addiction and problem gambling, they should be fighting for, and not against, such measures as monthly or quarterly statements to gamblers, increased funding for addiction treatment services, limited hours of operation, and smoking bans. These are measures the casinos oppose â and the last time I checked, the casinos never ran for office.
Click here to find your state Senator by zip code. (top right of screen).
The Fix is In, Part Two: How the table games amendment was rammed through the House, and opponents stifled.
(Apologies: this reporter clicked "Publish" instead of "Preview" and subjected early post readers to horrendous spelling mistakes).
(In Part One: The Great Santoni, Gaming Oversight Chairman Dante Santoni concocts a super-amendment to destroy all other amendments and rewrites the table games bill to include all sorts of earmarks and casino-friendly provisions).
By Monday night, House legislators saw that the fix was in: the dozens of amendments to the table games bill drafted by House members â each of which would, in theory, require a reading and open debate before the public on the House floor â had been obliterated by the omnibus Santoni amendment. It was to be an all or nothing vote.
Part Two: The Gag.
The debate carried on for six hours, as Rep. Santoni stood for interrogation by oppositional Republicans and a few furious Democrats, who accused him of leaving them out of the process.
Rep. Mike O'Brien (D-Philadelphia), for example,a member of the gaming Oversight Committee, who represents part of Fishtown, asked why, when he called on Friday to make inquiries on the massive bill that had suddenly appeared, Committee staff was unable to help him.
"This process reeks," O'Brien said. "Tonight, I will correct the error of my vote in Gaming Oversight, and I will vote 'no.'"
Rep. Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) spoke at length and passionately against the bill, reading from a long list of bizarre and suspicious earmarks, and criticizing the bill's failure to adopt Attorney General recommendations that law enforcement authority be taken away from the gaming Control Board.
Rep. Paul Clymer (R-Bucks) condemned the bill as a giveaway to the casinos, citing the low license fees ($16.5 million versus a $50-$60 million recommended figure Clymer had obtained from an investment specialist) and the low tax rates (14% versus the 55% tax on slot revenues).
Clymer referenced a group of consultants from the Innovation Group â a company with strong ties to the gaming industry â who had met with House leaders and recommended those very figures.
"It's exactly what they said at that meeting that we're finding in this Amendment," he cried. "You can see the voice and face of the casinos' influence in this legislation."
But Clymer's heaviest condemnation was on moral grounds, calling provision for allowing credit to gamblers "horrendous."
"What are we doing to our fellow man?" he asked. "I hope Governor Rendell, if this bill gets to him, will veto it on that issue alone."
Finally, around 8:00 P.M. the amendment was put to a vote. It passed: 97-95. Click here to see how each member voted.
The amendment had passed, but the night wasn't over â not quite.
A number of Representatives had managed to get new amendments on the agenda.
Representative Keller (D-Philadelphia), who had voted for Santoni's amendment, nonetheless offered a new amendment to remove the language in Santoni's bill allowing Foxwoods Casino to extend its license. The motion failed.
Representative Clymer, not going down without a fight, had several amendments. One would require that quarterly statements be sent to gamblers, letting them see on paper how much they had spent at a given casino. It failed.
Another amendment banned free alcohol in casinos; three more amendments tried to raise the licensing fee for table games from $16.5 million to between $25 and $75 million.
"Whether you agree or disagree with gambling, we can try to get the most out of it for the state," Clymer later told me. "If we did $50 million we'd get in approximately $600 million" - which is an increase of $400 million dollar and that would fix the governor's $200 million deficit."
Such a measure, one would think, would be amenable to everyone in the House â unless, of course, House members' loyalties were to the casinos themselves, and not the state coffers.
And, in fact, these amendments were not voted upon. Instead, any House members trying to further amend the bill were silenced â by a single old man: the 88-year-old Representative Frank Oliver (D-Philadelphia) who offered the obscure "motion to move the previous question."
I don't know what it means, but I've learned what it does: it ends debate, on the spot. The motion carried. Neither Clymer's amendments nor anyone else's would be given even the dignity of a public hearing, much less be voted upon.
The gag had worked.
Listen below to some of the testimony in Monday's debate on the House floor.
|Rep Paul Clymer|
|Rep Mike Turzai|
The Fix is In, Part One: How casinos hijacked the House of Representatives last night - and intend to do it again tonight.
Last night, the State House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 711, which legalizes tables games at like blackjack and poker at Pennsylvania casinos.
Of course, that's not all it does â not by a long shot: lend me your eyes and ears, readers, and I'll tell you all about it.
Part One: The Great Santoni
Table games have been on the docket for some time. Although they still hadn't been legalized in the state, Governor Rendell included somewhere between $200 and $300 million in projected table game revenues in the state budget.
Which put considerable pressure on the legislature to pass the measure â pressure some members of the legislature and the Governor amped up still more by holding hostage funds allocated for state schools and other institutions.
But the vote on SB711 had been getting delayed, over and over again â perhaps because the votes weren't there, yet â and debate didn't begin until early last week.
But no sooner had debate started, than the debate was cut off by Democratic leaders (generally, Democrats have favored this bill and Republicans have opposed it), who, last Thursday, abruptly vanished from the House floor and left for the weekend.
The reason soon became clear â on Friday evening, the House intranet revealed a new amendement to SB711, introduced by Gaming Oversight Committee Chairman Dante Santoni.
It was an omnibus amendment, combining elements of other proposed amendments and a slew of clauses of mysterious origin. One important clause ensured that this amendment obliterated and replaced all previous amendments.
In other words, it wasn't just an amendment to the bill - it was the bill itself.
In fact, Santoni introduced not just one but four such bills - almost identical, but containing tiny differences that made it necessary for any critical legislator to read not just 130 pages of amendments in two days, but quadruple that number.
Nonetheless, when debate began Monday afternoon, legislators had identified all sorts of questionable provisions in the bill.
It's important to remember that table games were never expected to bring in much money: $200-$300 million isn't much next to the state budget. So why the hard push to get this legislation passed?
One answer may be that while it doesn't do much for state coffers, the bill is the realization of all sorts of favors - unrelated to table games, in many cases â to both the casinos and the loyal legislators who do their bidding.
Here are a few examples:
- The bill levies a tax of only 14% on table game revenues â compared with 55% for slot machines. A license to operate table games would cost only $16 million â despite studies presented to the House which suggested that such licenses might be worth more than $50 million.
Why tax table games at such a low rate - especially since legalized gambling is supposed to be a means of raising revenue for the state? Representative Paul Clymer, long opposed to the expansino of gambling in Pennsylvania, points out that these figures - the 14% and $16 million â are familiar: they're the same figures suggested by the Innovation Group, a consulting firm tied to the gaming industry.
""You can see the voice and face of the casinosâ influence in this legislation â they know what they want,â Clymer said on the House floor. "We're giving these licenses away."
- Although gambling has been billed as property tax relief, the bill pays money first into a state "rainy day" fund, which might not fill for several years. Only then would the revenues g to property tax relief.
The bill does, however, contains sundry earmarks for pet projects and unnamed entities around the state. Representative Mike Turzai read aloud form a list compiled by his staff on Monday night. It included community colleges, tiny municipalities, a particular medical school (on whose board sits Louis DeNaples, indicted last year for allegedly lying about mafia ties to get a casino license; he was cleared when he agreed to cede the business to his daughter).
See a list of the earmarks compiled by the Commonwealth Foundation.
None of these pet projects are necessarily bad - but they're almost certainly a favor to someone, for something: very possibly to the Democrats kind enough to get behind Santoni's amendment.
- The bill contains a provision that would allow Foxwoods to extend its license beyond the deadline currently provided for in state law. Why would such a favor be extended to Foxwoods, which has been so far unable to get the financing to open up shop on the waterfront?
- The bill allows casinos to extend credit to patrons â a practice that was explicitly banned in Act 71, the original gaming law (passed in the middle of the night with no debate) that brought slots to Pennsylvania. The gaming industry has argued that credit lines are necessary to making table games work â why, then, does this bill allow the casinos to extend credit to slots players as well?
The granting of credeit by casinos allows the casinos to pursue their money beyond the walls of the casino â as evidenced by cases in Connecticut, where Foxwoods has taken out liens against debtors and pursued their debts in court.
All these provisions and many, many more â some of which we won't find out about until later, undoubtedly â had been rolled into one big, fat amendment at the last minute by Representative Dante Santoni.
It was a risky move, in a way: Santoni had alienated some Democrats with his bill. But the calculation was clear: Santoni figured he - and his unknown collaborators - had worked enough favors into the bill to please enough Democrats to pass the thing.
And it worked.
Next post: how the Santoni amendment was passed, and how further amendments aimed at protecting gamblers were derailed by an 88-year-old man and an obscure parliamentary maneuver -- and what it all means for us, tonight.
WHYY's Susan Phillips reports today that State Senator Larry Farnese and State Representative Mike O'Brien are both calling on the state to tell Foxwoods its time is up.
Said Sen. Farnese:
They should shut the door on this and we should move forward. And the city of Philadelphia should move forward on this. I think its a bad idea to try and give them additional time. Because they've never convinced anybody and they've never done anything to prove they can do what they say they're gonna do.
Yesterday, the Inquirer's Jennifer Lin broke the news on a buried clause in a proposed amendment to the amazingly pernicious table games bill that would give Foxwoods yet another extension to get up and running.
The casino actually just got an extension in August, giving it another two years to open. This amendment would have allowed it to take yet another year.
But Foxwoods appears to be in serious financial difficulty. They've been unable to find sufficient funding for their South Philly waterfront location; and, the AP reports today that Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut just announced that they'd be defaulting on a debt payment, prompting Standard and Poor's to lower their credit rating to a 'D.'
Why, then, do there seem to be efforts afoot in Harrisburg to help the faltering casino afloat?
would allow PA casinos to extend credit to their customers, whether they're playing table games or just slots to die before reaching his desk. In a phone conference today, Rendell referred to that clause and others as "ancillary," and said, "I think a lot of that stuff is going to go out of the bills before it gets to me." Pressed on the issue of casino credit specifically, Rendell said, "I don't think that will survive the final bill but if it did, I would have to sign it. That's not a core issue for me." Listen to the exchange here: [audio:http://stream.citypaper.net/music/edrendell_tablegames_30oct09.mp3]
The General Assembly is supposed to reconvene on Monday, Nov. 9 to settle the issue. Meanwhile, we noticed that today's Inquirer editorialized against the credit clause:
Even when Pennsylvania's flawed gaming bill was passed in the dark of night in 2004, the legislature had enough sense to prohibit the extension of in-store credit. Why back off now? The gaming industry says it needs to be able to provide credit to the high rollers expected once the slots parlors morph. But the credit access will also be there for problem gamblers and those who can least afford it. That's especially troubling in Philadelphia, where about a quarter of the population lives in poverty and many are on the edge.
A week ago, I got astride my bicycle, turned my phone off, and set off for a leisurely five-day ride to Pittsburgh. Amazing how much can happen in a week: I arrived to the news that the state budget had finally passed and that table games (blackjack, poker, etc.) were legalized as part of that budget.
Only they weren't.
Little-reported is the fact that while the General Assembly may have agreed to fill about $240 million worth of the state budget with table games, lawmakers haven't yet passed the legislation needed to legalize them. And now the General Assembly is in recess until Nov. 9, meaning that for the next few weeks, anyway table games are potentially still up for grabs.
There are a couple of hold-ups.
One is the rate of taxation for table games. Proposed taxes on table game revenues range from arond 10 percent to the mid-30s. There are similar disagreements over licensing fees.
Another is that while the Senate currently holds two bills relating to gambling one that contains gambling reform, and another that would legalize table games the House has both lumped into the same bill, which originated in the Senate (Senate Bill 711).
Casino opponents, like Rep. Paul Clymer (R-Bucks), may not vote in favor of the House's bill, despite the reform components. The Senate's bills, on the other hand, would let those politicians vote for reform, but against table games. Clymer, for example, would favor the Senate's gambling reform bill (Senate Bill 1088), but would work against the table gaming legalization bill (Senate Bill 1033).
Meanwhile, proponents of table games have come up with a novel way of pushing their agenda: holding universities and museums hostage, refusing to deliver payments for "nonpreferred institutions" until the legislation passes.
Reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
The delayed payments are for 28 institutions in a strange-sounding category called "nonpreferred appropriations," and include such major venues as the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, the Carnegie Museums, the Children's Institute of Pittsburgh, Temple University and a dozen other groups in Philadelphia.
Yesterday, on the PA House Floor, Representative Mike O'Brien, whose district includes Fishtown (where the SugarHouse casino is expected to open), introduced an amendment to Senate Bill 711 the gambling "reform" bill that also seeks to introduce table games like Blackjack and Poker that would require Pennsylvania casinos to pay an additional 1 percent tax on gross table gaming revenues. The revenue would go straight to the county hosting that casino.
The amendment passed.
Whoopee, right? Everybody wins! Except the casinos, but they've won so much already they shouldn't mind.
But wait there's more.
In all counties but one, that extra revenue will go to the county itself. This will not, however, take place in counties "of the first class." That designation, of course, applies to only one county: Philadelphia. Rather than Philly getting the cash directly, the money will be distributed to non-profit organizations "for the benefit of the immediate vicinity" of the casinos.
Who gets to pick which nonprofits get the money?
Interestingly, that will fall to a special seven-member advisory board, of which a majority of members will be picked by Rep. O'Brien, the sponsor of the bill, and State Senator Larry Farnese, whose district includes both casinos. City Council, the mayor's office, and the casino will each get to pick one representative, too.
With a combined majority of representatives on this board, incumbents O'Brien and Farnese will, presumably, have considerable influence over how and where the money is allocated not bad come election time. Who, among incumbents, doesn't want a new pot of money to play with? Not that there's necessarily anything untoward in any of this.
Still, something about this jogs my memory. Wasn't there another state senator who liked dolling out money to a favored local non-profit? Then it turned out that he was getting free power tools and stuff? Then both he and the non-profit became the subject of investigations?
What was his name? Rhymed with "You know?"
Anyway, that's old news, right?
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