Games of skill

Pennsylvania legislators are currently considering legislation that ban Pennsylvania game of skill like these inside Sunoco 280 N. Decatur St. in Strasburg Monday, June 10, 2019.

THE ISSUE

Some forms of gambling have slipped through the cracks of Pennsylvania regulation. There are at least “12,000 court-adjudicated ‘games of skill’ machines throughout Lancaster County and the state, which are unregulated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board,” LNP’s Gillian McGoldrick reported June 11. The machines can be found in some bars, convenience stores and fraternal organizations. State Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, is pushing legislation to, in his words, “stop the proliferation” of these machines.

First, some great news on another gambling-related front. Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill that allows any Lancaster County municipality “to prohibit video gambling machines at truck stops within its borders,” LNP’s Junior Gonzalez reported Thursday.

The bill had been co-sponsored by Lancaster County Republican Sens. Ryan Aument (Mount Joy) and Scott Martin (Martic Township), who worked hard to get it pushed through the corridors of Harrisburg quickly. We appreciate those efforts.

“I couldn’t be more pleased that the governor signed this,” Martin told LNP. “Local control was inserted back into this process.”

And that local control was immediately put into action. Gonzalez noted that, within hours of Wolf’s pen hitting the paper, “supervisors in West Hempfield Township, which is mired in a lawsuit over the machines, unanimously opted (to prohibit the machines) at their regularly scheduled monthly meeting.” We suspect more local municipalities will follow suit within the 60-day window provided by the legislation.

It was just this past December that we lamented the seeming inevitability of slot machine-like video gaming terminals at truck stops within Lancaster County. We wrote: “There must be a limit to Pennsylvania’s gambling madness. It would have been nice if the buck could have stopped in Lancaster County. ... All we ask is for a voice in the matter.”

Aument and Martin listened to their constituents and gave them that voice. We find it heartening to see that “inevitable” doesn’t always have to mean inevitable. Things can change for the better.

Which brings us to “games of skill” machines, for which a definition is in order.

These machines, McGoldrick reported, are neither “a video gaming terminal, nor a slot machine, although all the functionalities are almost exactly alike.” They call for a level of skill on the part of the player. Some “require a person to change a character to match three-in-a-row or recall the order circles are highlighted,” McGoldrick noted. That distinction of calling for a level of player skill, a Pennsylvania court ruled in 2014, means they don’t fall under the regulatory umbrella of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. (Which is, frankly, ridiculous.)

Now the machines are “spreading like wildfire,” Martin told LNP.

That brings another problem: The growing presence of the machines is siphoning money away from the Pennsylvania Lottery, which has generated nearly $29 billion to benefit the state’s senior citizens since its inception in 1972. The lottery “estimates it lost $138 million in sales this year to these machines,” McGoldrick reported, “because they are often available at locations where the Pennsylvania Lottery is sold.”

To its credit, Williamsport-based Miele Amusements, one of the leading producers of the “games of skill” machines, is asking for oversight and regulation of the industry, which is simultaneously dealing with a rise in “copycat” gambling devices. But Miele Amusements “opposes bills that would ban them or subject them to the high tax rates paid by video terminals and casinos,” McGoldrick reported.

It seems to us that Miele Amusements, which employs more than 100 people, is trying to have it both ways: It wants government oversight that could knock out competitors — but doesn’t want to be lumped in with other taxed forms of regulated gambling.

Yet these are gambling machines, in our eyes. It’s disingenuous to call them “games of skill.”

Spending money on them is not harmless. It perpetuates a culture of gambling that can be addictive and is not part of the fabric of Lancaster. We don’t think it should be part of the fabric of Pennsylvania, either.

At the very least, these “games of skill” machines should be strongly regulated and taxed at the same level as the video gambling machines that will be popping up at truck stops across Pennsylvania (but now — we hope — not anywhere in Lancaster County).

We would not mind seeing these “games of skill” machines banned altogether in the commonwealth. We would regret the loss of Pennsylvania jobs, but we think Harrisburg — as the legalized gambling expansion continues — should deploy a firmer hand against these fringe forms of gambling.

In his co-sponsorship memo earlier this year, Sen. Tomlinson stated: “Many people view gambling as a victimless crime; however, we must recognize these machines remain unregulated. There is no consumer protection provided through monitoring to prevent minors from gambling, assist problem gamblers, regulate payout rates or ensure collection of taxes.” We agree and also worry that some people who put money into “games of skill” machines are the ones who can least afford to do so.

McGoldrick reported that Aument and Martin have both signed on as co-sponsors of Tomlinson’s legislation to halt the machines’ proliferation.

We continue to appreciate their efforts to stop the “gambling creep” here and throughout Pennsylvania. It turns out — in a pleasant surprise to us — that it’s still possible to win some battles on this front.