Mini-casino

This illustration shows the mini-casino Penn National Gaming Inc. plans to build in Caernarvon Township, Berks County.  

THE ISSUE

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board recently granted a license for the installation of video gaming terminals (gambling machines) at a Rutter’s convenience store in Juniata County, PennLive.com reported in an article that also appeared in the June 16 Sunday LNP. It was the first such license granted in the state; numerous other convenience stores, including some in Lancaster County, have applications pending. Meanwhile, a state bill co-sponsored by Lancaster County Republican Sens. Ryan Aument (Mount Joy) and Scott Martin (Martic Township) would allow municipalities here and in certain other counties a 60-day window to decline gambling machines at truck stops within their borders by passing a resolution. The bill was unanimously approved by the state Senate last week and has moved to the state House for consideration.

Our state may as well be dubbed “Pennsyl-Vegas,” gambling opponent Dianne Berlin of Penn Township told LNP’s Junior Gonzalez for a June 11 article.

It’s hard to disagree.

We have frequently expressed our regret over the state’s 2017 gambling expansion, which allowed for new mini-casinos, gambling machines in truck stops, online gaming and sports betting.

The effects of that expansion have been continually creeping up around our county’s borders.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board recently approved plans for Hollywood Casino Morgantown in Caernarvon Township, Berks County, just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It could open in late 2020 and, while it is technically a “mini-casino,” The Philadelphia Inquirer has pointed out that “the term mini-casino is really a misnomer, because nothing about them is miniature. ... Hollywood Casino Morgantown would be about half the size of the flagship Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course in Grantville. ... (It) would contain 750 slot machines and 30 table games ... a sports betting area, restaurants, and bars.”

And if having a “mini-casino” just to Lancaster County’s north isn’t bad enough, plans appear on track for a proposed mini-casino at the York Galleria Mall, just 10 miles west of Columbia Borough on Route 30.

Gambling sites could soon be encircling Lancaster; their presence will seep into our culture and way of life. (To apply a Lando Calrissian quote to the state’s 2017 gambling expansion, “this deal is getting worse all the time!”)

Gambling has never been desirable or prudent for Pennsylvania. Our area, which we especially love for its beauty, individuality and pace of life, will lose more of what makes it special as gambling enters the region’s towns and truck stops.

But as others gambol toward “Pennsyl-Vegas,” at least we have local legislators who are fighting to keep some of the “Vegas” out of our bucolic part of Penn’s Woods. While they can’t stop the online betting, sports betting or regional mini-casinos from getting their footholds, these lawmakers might be able to stop gambling machines from being approved for our truck-stop convenience stores.

As LNP’s Gonzalez reported, “The machines operate almost identically to video slots machines in casinos. ... The maximum bet on a (video gaming terminal) is $5 with a maximum single payout of $1,000.” By law, the terminals must pay out at least 85% of the money played, with 42% of revenue going to Pennsylvania’s general fund and 10% going to a separate state fund for county grants.

But regardless of who benefits, there’s just not much appetite for hosting the machines here. “I don’t see any increased public benefit, social or economic, to adding gambling options in East Lampeter Township,” wrote supervisor Ethan Demme last year.

Sens. Martin and Aument, well in tune with their constituents, agree. Their bill, now successfully through the state Senate, allows for an easy opt-out for municipalities.

“The final authority to decide what, if any, gambling options to allow into a community should be left to local municipal leaders and the people they represent,” Aument stated in a news release last week. “Lancaster County has fiercely fought back against the idea of establishing new gambling venues here, and it is encouraging to see the Senate stand up for the rights of our local residents.”

Added Martin: “Citizens should have a voice in the gambling debate, which is why we sought to restore the principle of local control. Gambling does nothing to improve our culture, our values or our economy. In fact, the threat of these machines has already taken money away from local taxpayers as a result of lawsuits pertaining to (video gaming terminals).”

We agree, and we appreciate the senators’ rapid movement on this issue. The bill has moved to the House, where we hope Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom, can wield his influence on behalf of his home county and get the bill to the floor rapidly for a vote. We should urge Cutler and all of our state House members to vote for the bill’s passage. If they can’t get the Martin/Aument bill through the House and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, we could have gambling machines at Lancaster County truck stops as early as this fall.

We’d hate to see that.

We can’t turn back the clock on Pennsylvania’s gambling expansion.

We can’t stop mini-casinos from being approved and built in adjacent counties.

But we hope Senate Bill 321 can stem the gambling tide just a little bit and keep video gaming terminals from getting a foothold in Lancaster County municipalities that do not want them.

And then, if that’s successful, perhaps we can turn our attention to another topic — the “games of skill” machines that are already pervasive in Lancaster County, but are outside the regulation of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. They’re not technically gambling machines, as LNP’s Gillian McGoldrick reported in a June 11 story, but the dividing line is extremely hazy.

Aument and Martin have already signed as co-sponsors for a bill that would amend the Pennsylvania crimes code to ban the “games of skill” machines.

Fighting gambling, in all its forms, seems to be a non-stop job.