Pennsylvania Republican Senators Attempt to Expand VGTs Statewide

  • Top PA GOP Senators want to allow VGTs in establishments that hold liquor licenses
  • VGTs are currently only permitted at truck stops
  • Proponents cite tax revenue and the elimination of skill game machines as benefits
  • Opponents do not want gambling money diverted from casinos
  • A VGT software company held a fund raiser for a leading Republican Senator in 2019
woman playing video poker
Republican Senators in Pennsylvania are trying to get enough support for possible legislation that would allow all establishments with liquor licenses in the state to have VGTs. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Could generate quarter-billion in taxes

Pennsylvanian Republican (PA GOP) lawmakers are pushing to expand the state’s gambling industry once again to permit video gaming terminals (VGTs) in businesses that have liquor licenses. This would include thousands of sports bars, taverns, restaurants, non-profit social clubs, and more across the state.

No votes have been scheduled – in fact, a bill has yet to even be formally written – as PA GOP Senators are trying to drum up enough support among their colleagues.

A massive gambling expansion bill passed in October 2017, legalizing online poker and casino games. One of the most hotly debated parts of the bill surrounded VGTs. Some lawmakers wanted them widespread, while others wanted to severely limit them. In the end, VGTs, which include slot machines and video poker, were legalized at licensed truck stops.

tax revenue from VGTs could amount to $200m to $250m per year

There are currently 135 video gaming terminals at 27 truck stops in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Republican budget analysts estimate that the tax revenue from VGTs could amount to $200m to $250m per year for the state’s coffers.

Would push out skill games

In addition to the tax revenue terminals could generate, proponents of a possible bill argue that it would eliminate the thousands of “skill game” machines that can be found in stores and offices across the state. Some shops are dedicated to solely housing such machines.

According to the Associated Press, Governor Tom Wolf’s office believes skill game machines diverted $200m in 2019 that would have otherwise been spent on the lottery. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman called the machines a “blight”.

The Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, a trade association for bars and restaurants, is fully behind potential legislation. It believes it would be an additional, fully legal, and much-needed source of revenue as businesses slowly recover from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns.

Casinos don’t want competition

Though the governor’s office is no fan of skill game machines, Gov. Wolf is opposed to the expansion of VGTs. His office put out a statement saying there are already numerous gambling opportunities in Pennsylvania and that it doesn’t want VGTs to siphon money away from those.

Similarly, casino operators also oppose widespread video gaming terminals, as they do not relish the added competition. If gamblers can find slot machines at their local bar, they might not have any reason to make the drive to a casino.

The other party who hopes a bill does not see the light of day is Pace-O-Matic, the Georgia-based company that makes the software found in most of the skill games the bill wants to eradicate.

Their games are flashier, more appealing.”

“We can’t compete with them,” Pace-O-Matic spokesman Michael Barley told the AP. “Their games are flashier, more appealing. They look like things you would find in a brick-and-mortar casino […] Our games are slower, more methodical.”

Gaming company greasing palms?

The PA GOP’s effort to legalize VGTs statewide is also the source of political controversy in what could be a pay-to-play scheme. According to Spotlight PA, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati was the beneficiary of tens of thousands of dollars last fall from a fundraiser hosted by a gaming company for which Pennsylvania VGT expansion would be a boon.

In October 2019, Dave Thomas, a lobbyist for VGT-operating company Golden Entertainment, held a private reception in Las Vegas for Scarnati. Guests were told to RSVP to the DT (Dave Thomas) Firm and make checks out to the Scarnati campaign. Attendees paid anywhere from $7,500 to $25,000 for a lavish weekend at the Bellagio. They were taken to an NHL hockey game, a golf outing, and a fancy dinner atop the STRAT, which is owned by Golden.

The event just so happened to also be the same week as the 2019 Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

This year, just before the Pennsylvania primary elections, four Golden Entertainment executives contributed a total of $42,500 to Citizens for a Better Pennsylvania, a PAC run by Scarnati.

A draft of a VGT expansion bill has also allegedly been written by a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Video Gaming Association.