Pennsylvania’s Online Poker Legislation Delayed Until Fall; Passage Still Likely

Despite months of positive momentum, including a successful 114-85 vote by the full House of Representatives, online poker legislation in Pennsylvania has been shelved until the upcoming Fall session.

Even so, state lawmakers are still confident that House Bill 2150 will be quickly approved once the Pennsylvania Legislature reconvenes in September.

Their optimism stems from the fact that Pennsylvania’s recently passed $31 billion budget plan relies on $100 million in expected revenue generated from a “gambling expansion package.”

Confronted with an unbalanced budget and a looming legislative deadline, the state’s Senate was forced to find $1.3 billion in additional revenue to balance the ledger entering the 2016-2017 fiscal year. Amidst a backdrop of contentious debate, the Senate eventually agreed upon a collection of so-called “sin taxes” – including a planned increase of $1.00 per pack on cigarettes, a 6 percent tax on digital media downloads, and the $100 million gambling expansion package.

Because attempting to balance the state’s budget took full priority as the legislative session came to a close, several pending items were allowed to lapse along with HB-2150, a fact which was pointed out by the bill’s chief sponsor Rep. John Payne.

According to Rep. Payne, essential bills believed to be assured of passage, such as those tied to state pension funds and charter schools, were also delayed until the Fall, signaling that the Senate has simply bided its time while ensuring that the state’s budget crisis could be properly managed:

“Multiple things were delayed to the fall. It’s not like gaming was singled out.”

In late June supporters of Payne’s bill celebrated as the Pennsylvania House voted for passage, following an effort to reframe HB-2150 as a budget amendment.

Faced with the possibility of a credit downgrade for the entire state, Pennsylvania lawmakers managed to cobble together a balanced budget at the last minute, but in doing so they left $600 million in “holes” caused by unpassed legislation. In essence, the Senate decided to approve a final budget plan which is based on revenue generated by bills which have not yet become law.

The overall gaming expansion package, of which HB-2150 and online poker regulation is one component, represents one of those fallback bills and is expected to contribute $100 million to address the revenue gap.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Terry Madonna, who serves as the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, observed that the gaming package would be prioritized for immediate passage when the new legislative session commenced in September:

“They’ll focus mostly on consensus pieces and nothing very controversial. I wouldn’t expect to see major pieces of legislation, with the exception of gaming.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Browne told Lancaster Online that the gaming package would be “counted on” to supplement the state treasury with $100 million – a figure which experts believe can only be attained through the proposed licensing fees paid by prospective online poker operators.