Inquirer Editorial: Yet another bet on gambling

Games now restricted to VFW posts like Ardmore's likely won't be.
Games now restricted to VFW posts like Ardmore's likely won't be. (File)
Posted: November 22, 2013

Now that Harrisburg has blanketed Pennsylvania with full-blown casinos - to be joined all too soon by a second Philadelphia casino that the city hardly needs - its proposed expansion of small games of chance to thousands of bars and taverns may seem like small beer.

The measure, which received final legislative approval this week and is expected to be signed by Gov. Corbett, won't change the state's gambling landscape radically. But it will create winners and losers - which, of course, is sort of the point. As with any expansion of state-sanctioned gambling, the question will be whether the gains outstrip the losses.

Among the likely winners are tavern owners, who will be able to bolster their trade by offering customers daily drawings, lottery-style game cards, and monthly charity raffles. Current state law restricts such games to private social, fraternal, and veterans' groups, such as American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, and there isn't much justification for preserving their 25-year monopoly any longer.

Giving corner pubs new tools to keep patrons bellying up to the bar may well help sustain jobs and liquor-tax revenues for the state. The new games would also yield a hefty cut of the action for the state treasury, which could amount to $156 million a year. That's not small change, and it is a rare thing in Republican-run Harrisburg: new tax revenue.

The expansion would allow Elks' lodges, VFW posts, and other such organizations to keep a bigger slice of the winnings to cover their operating expenses. The remaining net proceeds would go to charitable causes, as they do now.

The potential losers, no surprise, are the customers - particularly among the corner-bar crowd - who will push off from the brass rail with fewer dollars in their pockets. Their gambling tabs won't approach those of casino patrons, but such easy access to another form of wagering isn't going to help anyone's family finances.

Had there been more scrutiny of the legislation before lawmakers approved it, the potential social costs could have been explored more fully. That said, the lack of active opposition even by antigambling groups may be an indication that the added bar games shouldn't be viewed with much alarm.

It's certainly clear, however, that the move will bring the state one step closer to full saturation with gambling. The bar games may provide a bulwark against the inevitable drop in gambling revenues as surrounding states expand opportunities for betting. But at some point, Harrisburg needs to stop looking to gamblers to fill the state's coffers and fuel its economy.

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