Table games, Foxwoods win big

State House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer (left) sits with Rep. Dennis O'Brien during debate on the table-games bill yesterday.
State House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer (left) sits with Rep. Dennis O'Brien during debate on the table-games bill yesterday.
Posted: January 07, 2010

The state General Assembly gave final approval yesterday for table games such as blackjack, poker and roulette to be added at casinos across Pennsylvania.

Foxwoods, a long-delayed casino planned for South Philly, came up a big winner in the legislation.

State Rep. Bill Keller, whose district includes Foxwoods, and state Rep. Mike O'Brien, whose district includes SugarHouse, a casino being built in Fishtown, voted against the table-games bill as the House passed it in a 103-89 vote yesterday. State Sen. Larry Farnese, whose district includes both casinos, voted against the bill when the Senate passed it in a 28-22 vote Tuesday.

The legislation:

_ Gives the state Gaming Control Board authority to extend for another two years the deadline for Foxwoods to open a casino.

The board, clearly frustrated with a long series of Foxwoods delays, agreed in August to extend the deadline to open by one year.

The board set a new May 2011 deadline. The new legislation sets a December 2012 deadline

_ Overrides the city's indoor smoking ban for the two casinos.

Casino-Free Philadelphia yesterday lamented that Mayor Nutter, who pushed the indoor-smoking ban as a City Council member, did not lobby to keep casinos in the city smoke-free.

Nutter, through a spokesman, expressed concern yesterday about the smoking-ban override and hoped that someone from the city's delegation to the General Assembly could reverse that later with new legislation.

_ Gives the city control of an estimated $3.6 million per year in "local share" taxes on table games at Foxwoods and SugarHouse.

Farnese and O'Brien failed in a bid, opposed by Nutter, to have the cash doled out as grants by the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

_ Allows casinos to offer up to 250 table games. Two smaller "resort" casinos can offer 50 table games. A third resort casino license, to be awarded in 2017, was included in the legislation.

_ Bans felons from owning or managing a casino.

Foxwoods attorney Stephen Cozen yesterday said that the new option for another extension to open the casino makes sense for both the investors he represents and the state.

The investors, who missed a Dec. 1 deadline set by the Gaming Control Board to provide plans for the casino they plan to build, are negotiating with a big-name gambling investor to take a lead role in the project. That investor, Cozen said, wanted to see the outcome of the table-games legislation before striking a deal.

Foxwoods, a joint venture between the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut and a group of well-connected local investors, was granted a state casino license in December 2006.

The tribe is now struggling to refinance $2 billion in debt.

The trifecta of table games, a new investor and the potential for more time to open will give the local investors the ability to build "a first-class casino," Cozen said.

Foxwoods last month asked the Gaming Control Board to extend to March 1 its Dec. 1 deadline to deliver plans for casino construction. The investors were already required to submit by March 1 plans for how they will pay for it.

The General Assembly moved swiftly this week on table games after Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate stumbled for months on negotiations.

An anticipated $250 million in table-game taxes were crucial in a state budget deal struck by the Legislature in October after a 101-day delay. Gov. Rendell, frustrated at the lack of progress, had vowed to lay off 995 state employees tomorrow if the table- games legislation was not approved.

The legislation sets a $16.5 million fee for most casinos to add table games. Resort casinos would pay $7.5 million. It also sets a 16 percent tax rate on table-game revenue, which drops to 14 percent next year. Two percent of the tax revenue goes to cities and counties that host casinos.

The Gaming Control Board yesterday said that it would take at least six to nine months for any table games to open in the state, giving enough time for it to perform background investigations on the thousands of casino employees expected to be hired to work on table games, to review table-game plans and to train board staff to deal with table games.

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