Should a Billionaire Decide Where Pennsylvanians Can Gamble?

The casino industry has been good for my home state of Pennsylvania. For whatever ills one might claim goes along with gambling, the gaming industry has brought Pennsylvania $1.7 billion in total labor income, supports almost 34,000 jobs, and generates more than $2.4 billion in total tax revenues. Tomorrow, Pennsylvania state representatives will likely have a chance to vote on whether or not to take that industry online by allowing the state to license Internet gambling. Of course, wherever there is big money there is politics. While the move would make Pennsylvania more competitive with neighboring states like New Jersey and Delaware and generate even more tax revenue, special interests are rearing their ugly heads and opening their very large wallets… for the children, of course.

According to the American Gaming Association, around 10 million Americans gamble online each year and we spent approximately $30 billion between 2003 and 2010. That was before New Jersey, Delaware, and Nevada passed legislation making the activity legal.

There is no doubt that Pennsylvania is losing potential tax revenue to black market Internet gambling. Even worse is the fact that Pennsylvanians have to gamble on black market websites based overseas instead of placing their wagers on sites operated from and licensed by the state as neighboring Delawareans and New Jerseyans can.

One lawmaker, Rep John D. Payne (R-Dauphin), chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, has introduced legislation to legalize and regulate online gambling within the state. His House Bill 649 would allow existing Pennsylvania casinos within the state apply for “operator licenses,” requiring sites to verify age and location and giving the state the power to crack down on unauthorized sites.

Unsurprisingly, the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling launched an attack, not just against the bill, but against Rep. Payne. In a television ad, titled “Are Pennsylvania Kids Safe Online?” the group shows images of what looks like a 6 year old on a laptop and a 6- or 7-year-old playing on a tablet and claims that Rep. Payne is “working hard to legalize predatory online gambling.” CSIG, which is funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (owner of the Sands Bethlehem casino), made a smart decision in disabling comments on their video. Otherwise, it might have faced the same onslaught of ridicule as the anti-alcohol privatization produced by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 who last year posted a similarly over-the-top ad against privatizing Pennsylvania liquor sales. It featured the gem of a line, “it only takes a little bit of greed to kill a child.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that ends up in a CSIG ad in the future.

Like alcohol privatization, the debate over legalizing online gambling in Pennsylvania isn’t about what’s best for the state, but what’s best for entrenched political interests. While casino magnate Sheldon Adelson once declared that he’d throw his “hat in the ring” of online gambling, he had a change of heart and now says he’ll spend “whatever it takes” to stop Internet betting and has even had his lobbyists author a federal bill that would preempt the ability of states to make this decision for themselves, creating a national prohibition on Internet gambling. However, because that bill, the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA), has failed to gain support in Congress, he is taking the fight to the states, hoping to prevent any more from legalizing the activity. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

As Steven Stradbrooke with noted, Adelson’s CSIG “has bought over $176k worth of time on Pennsylvania TV channels to air the ad.” And they spent around $42k on the local CBS affiliate back in October for a week-long ad blitz, showing the ad on shows like 60 Minutes, Ellen, and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

While Adelson’s ads will say it’s about protecting the vulnerable, what you won’t hear is how legal online gambling is no less risky than brick-and-mortar gambling. You won’t hear that his own casinos have been fined year after year for letting underage players gamble and drink or allowing alleged drug traffickers for laundering money through his casinos. And it doesn’t take a Mensa membership to figure out that the 82-year-old is worried about this new form of digital competition.

A poll back in May showed that the majority of Pennsylvanians want the state to legalize and regulate online gambling. With New Jersey and Delaware on their border, where online gambling has been legal for almost two years without issue, this isn’t much of a surprise. Despite his billions of dollars, Adelson’s continual attempts to paint regulated online gambling as a Wild West with predators waiting for our kids to fall into their trap is nothing more than a badly timed bluff that isn’t fooling anyone in the Keystone State.