Pennsylvania: Land of confusion

When it comes to making gaming policy in Pennsylvania, handwringing Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is no help at all. He wants another $100 million in gaming revenue — but only if it doesn’t come at a cost to existing casinos and the state lottery. None of the state’s 12 casinos wants to see slot routes legalized. Complicating matters still further, a rump faction of legislators wants to narrow the state’s options by explicitly outlawing Internet gambling. Repeat offenders would be charged with third-degree misdemeanors. A previous effort proved widely unpopular and sputtered out in the Lege. “Considering where Pennsylvania is on this issue, and the abandonment of the previous prohibition/criminalization attempt, the bill is likely to be little more than a minor distraction… if that,” concludes Steve Ruddock.

The GOP pushback against Internet gaming is fueled by scare talk that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to reverse the Obama administration’s interpretation of the Federal Wire Act. According to the Philadelphia Tribune, former Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board member Thomas Decker not only thinks such a turnaround is unlikely, he doubts it will override state laws legalizing the pastime. An echo came from Michigan, where Rep. Robert Kosowski (D) said, “President Trump owns [sic] casinos, so I think he understands it, and I think he’ll be all right with it.” “The concern is this could all be for naught for all we know,” fretted state Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R). No, the concern is that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania needs new revenue and there’s damned little consensus on from where it’s going to come.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, enabling legislation for Net-betting passed a critical vote in the state house. State Sen. Mike Kowall (R) still has some convincing to do before the bill is a done deal. He testified, “The potential for jobs and economic development right here in Michigan is being lost. This legislation gives Michigan an opportunity to stop this illegal activity and to generate new revenue that could help fund infrastructure improvements, health care, education, public safety and other worthwhile programs.” Amaya, owner of PokerStars, is Kovall’s biggest ally at this point.

Detractors include those who argue that Internet gambling would sap the state lottery and Detroit‘s casinos. Tribal casinos are also opposed, since they’d have to amend their compacts to cut the state in on the revenue stream. Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Chief Frank Cloutier argues that Motown casinos could face a much speedier approval process than tribal ones. Or perhaps the tribes will consider Web betting a violation of their compacts and cut off revenue-sharing altogether. Kowall plans to negotiate the tribes, to see if he can bring them around to his perspective. Any way you look at it, Internet gaming in Michigan still has a ways to go.

* The waxing and waning fate of the Atlantic City Hilton (née Golden Nugget) is on an ‘up’ again. A local development group is proposing “Dolphin Village at Atlantic Club,” a mixture of water-park amenities, arcades and hotel rooms. “Where can a high-roller send his kids? This complements every casino in the city,” said developer Ronald A. Young. The project, budgeted at $135 million, has a staggered timeline, with 300 hotel rooms coming on line this autumn and full builtout targeted for anywhere between one to two years from now. Given the bureaucracy one must fight in Atlantic City, we understand why the timeline is so expansive.

Mayor Don Guardian (R) said the water park was “much better” than an abortive project Young had pitched for Bader Field. Operation of the actual water park will be farmed out to an external operator, one more experienced in the field. It’s certainly an improvement on the empty, dust-coated Atlantic Club currently decomposing on the site. The property is onto its sixth name change, by the way.

* Following the lead of Kansas, lawmakers in North Dakota are flirting with the idea of state-owned casinos. “Competition from state-owned casinos would likely be devastating” to North Dakota’s six tribal casinos, writes one pundit, who says the measure “has widely been viewed as retribution against the state’s Indian tribes.” That said, he supports state-owned gaming as an additional tourist attraction. Lawmakers should, however, look to Kansas, where casino allocation and development was full of false starts and acrimony. The remarkable thing about the Kansas experiment is not that anybody would repeat but that it has taken so long to be emulated. No doubt, everyone in the casino business from Caesars Entertainment on down is already crafting their pitches to North Dakota already.

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