Expanding gambling is a bow to the inevitable

March 18, 2017

It wasn’t that long ago that if you had an itch to gamble, you needed to gas up the buggy and drive to Atlantic City, N.J., or head to the airport and jet off to Las Vegas.

Those days are long gone. Atlantic City is on the ropes, and Las Vegas has been transformed into a bustling metropolis where family entertainment is just as much a draw as the blackjack tables, and the Rat Pack has been supplanted by The Who.

And there’s no need to travel too far if you want to gamble.

Almost half the states in the country now have some form of commercial gambling, with casinos having been viewed for the last decade or so as tools to boost state coffers and revive moribund economies in places like Toledo, Ohio, Detroit, Mich., or Schenectady, N.Y.

Given gambling’s march across the landscape, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that it’s creeping into our homes. Just as we can now order a parka or purchase a book without being untethered from our laptops, people can readily wager from their dens.

While it’s never advisable to impulsively roll the dice on a 401(k) account or put down a client’s money at the racetrack, gambling can be a harmless, entertaining diversion if, like most indulgences, it is carried out with common sense and in moderation.

A bill being co-sponsored by three state senators from this corner of the commonwealth that would add internet gaming and fantasy sports to Pennsylvania’s gambling menu is a bow to the inevitable – both activities are happening, whether we like it or not, and we should go ahead and reap some revenue from it.

Now in the state Senate’s Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee, it would allow licensed slot machine operators platforms where players can compete with one another. The state would stand to gain from the initial $8 million licensing fee that would be paid for signing on, followed by a $2 million licensing fee for each iGaming operator.

Operators would have to pay a 14 percent tax on daily revenue, along with a local share assessment. There would also be annual renewal fees.

Solid revenue projections have not yet been offered, but Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, the Jefferson Hills Republican who is one of the bill’s co-sponsors, puts the potential windfall at $100 million – not small change in budget-strained state.

Reschenthaler explained that “legalizing and regulating the iGaming industry will bring this industry out of the dark, provide an opportunity for brick-and-mortar casinos to attract new demographics and provide important protections for players.”

The notion of expanding gambling to help cover the state’s bills has been floating around for a while, and was on a menu of projected items to fill a budget hole when the 2016-17 budget was approved last July.

That gambling should be expanded – or, perhaps, needs to be expanded – is a rare point of agreement between Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and the Republicans who control the state House and Senate.

More gambling won’t be enough to erase a projected $3 billion shortfall, but every penny counts.

Expanding gambling is kind of like a proposal recently made by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale to legalize recreational marijuana use in Pennsylvania – it’s happening anyway, so why not let the state get a piece of the action?

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