2009-02-12 / Local & State

Legalizing Video Poker Could Be A Big Fight In Pennsylvania

By MARTHA RAFFAELE ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania's cash-strapped college students need urgent help paying their tuition bills, as Gov. Ed Rendell sees it, and he is calling on state lawmakers to deliver relief quickly by legalizing and taxing video poker playing.

It took lawmakers about 18 months into Rendell's first term to legalize slot machine gambling for school property-tax cuts, so it's hard to believe they will embrace video poker in time to help its intended beneficiaries - lowand middle-income students entering community colleges and the 14 State System of Higher Education universities this fall.

The notion of enabling government to cash in on video poker by permitting it in Pennsylvania's bars and private clubs has been discussed in the Capitol for more than two decades, but an obstacle has always stood in the way of legalization.

The closest it came to emerging from the shadows was in 1990, when the General Assembly passed a bill intended to funnel some of the revenue to communities and school districts.

Gov. Robert P. Casey vetoed it, citing concerns about organized crime, insufficient regulatory controls and a provision to give bars and machine distributors more than two-thirds of the proceeds. Casey argued that the bill would "significantly expand'' legalized gambling.

"He called (expanded gambling) fool's gold; here one day, gone the next,'' said Vincent P. Carocci, a retired lobbyist who was Casey's press secretary. "He thought it was a serious mistake to rely on that source as a stable foundation for funding Pennsylvania programs.''

By contrast, Rendell - like Casey, a Democrat - made the opposite argument during Wednesday's budget speech. That prompted noises of derision among some of the lawmakers gathered before him.

"You better listen, because there are thousands of families who today have decided they can't afford to send their kids to college, who might depend on this,'' Rendell said. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are not talking about an expansion because video poker already exists, and it's thriving here in Pennsylvania.''

Rendell sees much potential for video poker tax revenue at a time when the state's economy is hindering his ability to make major investments in his priorities, such as education. Rendell's aides have projected that video poker could deliver as much as $550 million a year for tuition aid once it is fully implemented.

But many Republican lawmakers are questioning whether a worthy end justifies the means, just as they did with slots-forproperty tax cuts, one of Rendell's 2002 campaign promises.

"When the governor originally brought gaming to Pennsylvania, he promised a myriad of advantages, including higher state revenues and lower property taxes,'' said Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester, in a statement released after the governor's address. "That was five years ago and taxpayers have seen little in the way of real relief.''

The slots bill won approval in July 2004 after enough lawmakers were satisfied that it would deliver benefits for their home districts beyond property-tax cuts. For example, a 4 percent share from Philadelphia Park's revenue went to its hometown of Bensalem and Bucks County and Pittsburgh's airport was guaranteed tens of millions of dollars in slots revenue.

It's too early to know whether similar "What's in it for me?'' demands will emerge among legislators if the video poker idea gains traction this time, but the state's bar and tavern association is sure to watch closely to make sure that its members reap some rewards as well.

And even if the tuition aid program becomes a reality, it will not necessarily forestall future tuition increases.

A year of tuition at any of the 14 state-owned universities costs $5,358 for a Pennsylvania undergraduate, about 20 percent higher than it was when Rendell took office in 2003. But the administration has praised the schools and the community colleges for keeping their yearly increases at or below the rate of inflation.

The total average cost including fees, room, board and textbooks is more than $15,000 this year.

Students whose family income qualifies them for the maximum state and federal grants still have to pay about $6,800 a year, spokesman Kenn Marshall said. They would only have to pay $1,000 under Rendell's plan.

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