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At many points throughout the 2016 legislative year, it seemed as if Pennsylvania was certain to legalize online poker along with an entire internet gambling regime. This weekend, however, the poker community is coming to grips with the reality that it may not happen this year.

There are only three days left on the Pennsylvania Senate calendar in which lawmakers have the chance to pass HB 2150, the gambling expansion bill that also includes the regulation of online gambling. If they fail to do so, the issue gets pushed to 2017, at which point it will have to be revisited entirely. A new bill will have to be introduced to legalize online gaming/poker, and it will not be done by Representative John Payne, a champion of the issue for years who is retiring from the legislature this year.

But What About the Hearing?

When the fall legislative session began, it was clear that the Senate needed a little nudge in order to act on HB 2150. Since the House had already passed the bill in the summer session and Payne knew he would be able to pass it through his House again, they applied pressure on the Senate by offering a House Gaming Oversight Committee hearing to refresh everyone’s palate.

Said hearing was originally scheduled for October 4 but was cancelled that morning. Payne soon announced that the hearing would happen on October 18 instead, which left only a small window of time in which the Senate could pass the bill and send it to the House. However, if a plan was in place, who are we to question the political process?

By all accounts, two days of hearings went quite well. Committee Chairman Payne did his job to push the bill and encourage is passage. He even closed the hearing by calling for the Senate to act immediately in order to protect consumers and garner the much-needed revenue already allocated in the state budget.

Poker Players Alliance Executive Director John Pappas was a key speaker at the hearing, having worked with lawmakers in Pennsylvania for several years to legalize online poker. In his testimony, he stressed the importance of consumer protections and revenue: “Doing nothing is simply not an option; Pennsylvania consumers and taxpayers have waited long enough.” He continued, “While we are encouraged that the Assembly, Senate and Governor all agreed on a budget that relies on $100 million new revenue from regulated iGaming, we are puzzled as to why it has never been authorized. Given the severe budget issues currently facing the Commonwealth and the complete lack of appetite from the public for more tax increases, iGaming and its already approved $100 million revenue stream seem like a no-brainer.”

Not only did the PPA note its support from more than 25,000 members in Pennsylvania alone, State Representative George Dunbar followed Pappas’ testimony by revealing that he is one of them.

Another positive that came from the hearing was a report that State Senator Kim Ward was pushing for Senate and House agreement on the bill so as to see a vote as early as Monday, October 24. However, by the end of the week, she tweeted, “As of yesterday, there weren’t enough votes. Many of the legislators just want to do the local share fix.”

Tax Rate Interruption

Why the negativity in this article’s introduction then, you ask? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court put a wrench in it in the form of a recent ruling declaring the tax structure from a 2004 gaming law unconstitutional. Basically, the legislature was ordered to fix it within 120 days, and waiting until January is not an option.

Lawmakers have been embroiled in somewhat intense discussions about the casino tax, as more municipalities want to revisit their shares of the $140 million in casino taxes paid for services in areas surrounding the casinos, such as police, road work, and economic development. The issue is so complicated that it will be difficult to iron out in order to meet the Supreme Court’s demands, much less work that new tax allocation into the gambling expansion bill.

Unless staunch supporters of HB 2150 devise a quick fix to the tax problem that can be easily integrated with the gambling expansion measures in HB 2150, the bill will likely die. It all rides on the actions of legislators on Monday and Tuesday as they bring their ideas to the table and try to hammer out an agreement in a very short amount of time.

The last day for the Senate to act on any bill this year is Wednesday, October 26.

All eyes will be on the Pennsylvania lawmakers this week. The PPA will keep everyone informed via social media as the final countdown begins.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.

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