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Pa. bets on casinos

Ryan Martin, right, looks over his wager as he joins in with the first group of patrons to Rivers Casino to bet on sports as the new, temporary sports betting area opens on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Pittsburgh. Marton made several wagers, including placing a $100 bet on the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl. Associated Press file photo

It took a little horse trading to get casinos into Pennsylvania.

The original 2004 law that created casinos in the state was The Race Horse Development And Gaming Act.

Gambling in Pennsylvania expanded throughout the 2010s, both with the addition of more casinos and the legalization of sports betting and online gambling.

Doug Harbach, the communications director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, the organization created in 2004 as the state licensing and the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing slot machines and casino gambling in the state, said, “Since casinos would be located in more urban areas with larger populations, legislators representing rural areas needed gaming revenue to support agriculture in order to vote for the bill. Thus, in the law revenue was directed to the horse racing industry that would trickle down to agriculture through the purchase of goods and services.”

Today, there are 17 casinos in Pennsylvania with an 18th planned for State College which is currently on hold due to legal proceedings.

Harbach said the PGCB had to be formed from scratch in the 22 months before the first casino opened in Wilkes-Barre.

The PGCB does not oversee the state lottery, horse racing bets or small games of chance.

“It has regulatory authority to apply sanctions for violations of the Gaming Act. We recently fined one casino, Live! Casino Hotel in Philadelphia, $100,000 for a sports waging violation,” said Harbach. The PGCB does not have police powers, referring possible criminal cases to the state police or the state attorney general.

Harbach said there are four categories of casinos in Pennsylvania: six casinos affiliated with racetracks; five stand-alone casinos which are allowed up to 5,000 slot machines and 250 table games each; two resort casinos allowed to have up to 1,000 slot machines and 50 table games; and 4 satellite casinos or mini-casinos that can have up to 600 slot machines and 40 table games. Harbach said a fifth satellite casino in State College has been licensed but its opening is stalled by a legal proceedings.

Harbach said the satellite casinos are located in malls where they have opened in closed anchor stores or in one case a closed Lowes building.

Harbach said table games at casinos can include blackjack, roulette, craps, poker and other variations on blackjack. “Most casinos have a poker room whose operation must be submitted to us and approved by us before they can put it on the floor,” said Harbach.

When the satellite casino in State College finally opens, the 18 casinos are all that are allowed in the state unless the Legislature raises the cap. Harbach said, “Casinos can’t be located in low-population areas. It can get to a saturation point where adding more casinos would be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

All casinos in the state are owned by publicly traded companies except the Mount Airy Casino Resort in Mount Pocono, which is privately owned, and Windcreek Bethlehem in Bethlem, which is owned by a tribal community.

The casinos have proved to be a jackpot for the state’s coffers.

Harbach said the casinos collected $5.7 billion in revenue in 2023 which meant $2.35 billion in taxes for the state.

He said $900 million of the tax revenue goes to property tax reduction for the state’s homeowners through homestead exemption.

The Taxpayer Relief Act provides for property tax reduction allocations to be distributed by the state to each school district. Most owner occupied homes and farms are eligible for property tax reduction. Only a primary residence is eligible for property tax relief.

The reductions can range from $600 to $700 per homeowner depending on which school district the home is in. This is the 15th year for the property tax reductions.

Another $400 million is sent to the state’s General Fund. The municipality or county that hosts a casino receives $260 million. The state’s horse racing industry receives $210 million to be used in expenditures to the state’s farmers to provide goods and services for the race tracks.

Harbach said another $200 million in the tax revenue goes to fund economic development projects throughout the state’s 67 counties.

The state’s involvement in gambling expanded in 2017 when the Legislature approved a bill that would allow casino gambling at truck stops, airports and online wagering including fantasy sports. This expansion made Pennsylvania the fourth state to legalize online gambling after Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware.

But the expansion of legal gambling in the state hasn’t been all aces, according to Josh Ercole, the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Council on Problem Gambling. The prevalence of casinos and slot machines, as well as online casino games, betting and fantasy games have left some with a gambling disorder that Ercole’s organization works to counter.

Some estimates put the number of Pennsylvanians who have had problem gambling issues at about 200,000.

“Basically a rough definition of problem gambling is exhibiting an issue that has negative impact on life,” Ercole said.

“’Compulsive gambling’ is an antiquated term. Gambling disorder is the diagnostic term listed the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” said Ercole. The DSM is the handbook used by health care professionals as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.

Ercole said gambling disorder is listed as behavioral issue rather than an addictive disorder such as those involving alcohol and drugs.

“One symptom indicating a gambling disorder is ‘chasing,’” said Ercole. “That’s trying to win back losses previously experienced. It becomes all powerful. They will stop at nothing to turn that loss into a win.”

People often turn to gambling to escape negative aspects of their reality.

“With older people it can be the loss of a loved one or retirement,” said Ercole. “Gambling puts them in a euphoric state, they’re not thinking of their other issues.”

Ercole said, those with a gambling disorder may actually suffer from withdrawal symptoms from trying to stop gambling.

“People can experience anger, frustration, headaches, stomach issues,” said Ercole.

The Council on Compulsive Gambling was incorporated in 1984 said Ercole. “It covers all things problem gambling related; education.”

“It’s making sure we do everything we can to minimize the negative impact that gambling can have,” said Ercole.

The Council runs a 24/7/365 helpline, 1-800-GAMBLER, that offers free and confidential assistance to callers. Chat and text options are also available.

The Council also works with casinos to educate casino employees to recognize the signs of gambling disorder among their customers.

Ercole said the Council partners with consultants across the state to offer counseling and meetings for people who feel they may have a gambling problem.

Ercole said the Council takes a neutral stance on gambling itself. “We’re focused on the people and preventing that (a gambling disorder) from happening.”

Ercole said it was difficult to determine if the increased availability of gambling options in Pennsylvania has led to an increase in gambling disorders because his organization lacks of baseline for numbers before casinos started in 2006, followed by sports betting at casinos in 2018 and legalization of online betting in 2019.

But Ercole said the 2020 pandemic and its lockdowns led people to switch their gambling from casinos to online betting, and people have stayed online.

“People were out of work and scared and looking to fill their time,” said Ercole.

But he noted in 2023, calls to 1-800-GAMBLER increased from 2,700 annually from 1,100 in 2021 and visits to the Council’s chat and text options increased from 175 in 2020 to 500 in 2023.

The PGCB’s Harbach said the board maintains a self-exclusion list for those suffering from a gambling disorder. People can voluntarily sign up for one year, five years or for life to be prohibited from entering a casino.

“They have their picture taken. If they enter a casino they can be arrested and fined for trespassing and their winnings can be confiscated,” said Harbach.

There are 12,000 people on the self-exclusion list currently.

The PGCB has also created an internet self-exclusion list to cover online wagering and fantasy sports. Players can set limits on how much they can bet or how long they can be on a site.

There’s also an involuntary exclusion list covering people caught cheating or fighting in casinos and other incidents such as leaving children alone in cars or hotel rooms while a parent or parents are gambling.

In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, gamblers place bets in the temporary sports betting area at the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia. Associated Press File Photo
In this Dec. 13, 2018 file photo, Andre Barnabei, the vice president of slot operations at the Rivers Casino, shows one of the sports betting kiosks before a ribbon-cutting ceremony as they open the new, temporary sports betting area. Associated Press File Photo

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