Skill Game Advocates Push for Regulation as Legal Battle Continues in Pa
HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - The growing popularity and legal debate over skill games is shaking up Pennsylvania's gaming industry. However, the 50,000+ unregulated slot-machine-like games have operated in a gray area throughout the Commonwealth. Now, advocates for skill games want to see them taxed and regulated.
Pennsylvania State Police say they're illegal gambling devices and have even seized them from establishments. But is it really gambling if it's based on skill and a player could win every time- if they are good enough?
“A gambling machine is defined by three elements in Pennsylvania, and many states around the nation. It's consideration- I put money in the machine. Chance- I press a button, I win or lose, no player input. And then a reward- you get something of value in return,” said Michael Barley, Chief Public Affairs Officer for Pace-O-Matic. “In a skill game, we remove that chance element and insert predominant skill. You can win every single time, it's been proven in court, it's been proven by experts,” he added.
Barley’s company powers Pennsylvania Skill Games and has an unusual request for the General Assembly.
“We want you to regulate us and we want to pay additional taxes,” said Barley.
State Senator Gene Yaw (R-Bradford/Lycoming/Sullivan/Tioga/Union) has been on board with the concept for years.
“Estimates are somewhere between maybe $200 and $300 million a year to the Commonwealth,” said Yaw.
Yaw is sponsoring bipartisan legislation known as the Skill Video Gaming Act to provide some uniformity. The legislation would place skill games under the Department of Revenue instead of the PA Gaming Control Board and proposes a 16 percent tax rate. Currently, casinos pay $0.54 on the dollar in gaming taxes for slots and skill games are not taxed.
“You have an industry that wants to be regulated, it wants to be taxed, and we need that income from it,” said Yaw during a skill game rally Tuesday in the Capitol.
Business owners with the Pennsylvania Taverns and Players Association (PA TAP) say they also need the income from it.
“They make a huge difference in our community,” said Kelly Scott with Park Ave Amusements in Meadville.
Scott says skill games provided supplemental income during a very challenging time.
“A lot of our bars were at the point where they were going to close, especially in outlying areas- Titusville, Tionesta- those areas were really struggling. Some of those locations now have been able to hire more employees, they've remodeled, some of our places even started other businesses. So, it's really helped,” said Scott.
Advocates say income from skill games also supports veteran organizations, fire halls, and many other non-profits.
“These games are important to businesses across Pennsylvania, and not only to businesses, but to veteran organizations, volunteer fire companies and fraternal groups,” said LaVar Arrington, former NFL and Penn State Football player.
“Last year alone, through our Hardship Grant program, we gave out $45,000 in hardship grants to veterans and their families and our community. For a small organization, it is absolutely a miracle that we're able to do that. The only reason why we're able to do that is because of the generosity of Pennsylvania Skill’s Charitable Giving Program. These folks are helping us save lives,” said Dave Ragan, the President of Veterans Promise in northeast Pa.
However, critics argue skill games take money away from the PA lottery, which benefits seniors.
“If you go in a convenience store and you see a skill game and a lottery machine, put the money in a lottery machine. You'll know you're helping seniors,” said Pete Shelly, a Harrisburg-based consultant with Parx Casino, who also started Pennsylvanians Against Gaming Expansion (PAGE). "There will be a lottery machine and then three or four or five skill games. Those skill games are draining money from that lottery machine,” he added.
Shelly says his stance on the legality of skill games aligns with several state agencies. He also says there are concerns over safety at the locations of skill games.
“The Pennsylvania State Police, the Office of the Attorney General and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, among others, agree that skill games are gambling devices. All of those agencies believe that, under current Pennsylvania law, they are illegal,” said Shelly. “Many crimes have been associated with the presence of skill machines in convenience stores, gas stations, laundromats, a thrift store, for instance. The casino has got a Pennsylvania State Police presence, their own security, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board- trained people working the door to make sure you're not intoxicated. You just don't have the problems in a casino that you have in convenience stores,” said Shelly.
There is ongoing litigation across Pennsylvania over the legality of skill games, including in the state Supreme Court.
Barley with Pace-O-Matic says so far, the legal status of skill games has been upheld in each court case, meaning they have yet to lose.