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Lobbying group stops at Rivers Casino to discuss gambling expansion

Jason Cato
| Monday, April 4, 2016 11:00 p.m
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Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Players try their luck on slot machines at Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh's North Shore, Monday, Feb. 17, 2014.

Legal sports betting across the United States — including Pennsylvania — is within reach, and the next president could help get the issue across the finish line, the head of the casino industry’s top trade association said Monday.

“I’m confident that in the next three to five years, we’re going to see legalized sports betting,” Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, said during a panel discussion at Rivers Casino on the North Shore.

Freeman visited Pittsburgh as part of its “Gaming Votes” initiative to tout the casino industry’s impact on jobs and economic development in battleground states for the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. The Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group already staged discussions in Colorado, Iowa, Ohio and Nevada. Next up is Michigan.

“Are we necessarily asking (candidates) to do anything? No,” Freeman said. “But I want them to be informed.”

U.S. casinos employ about 1.7 million people and generate about $250 billion in annual economic activity in 40 states, according to AGA figures.

In Pennsylvania, the industry creates about $6 billion in economic activity and $2.5 billion in tax revenue each year, the group reports.

One issue in Pennsylvania that the AGA opposes is taxing free slots play. Gov. Tom Wolf proposed imposing an 8 percent tax on such promotional play to raise another $51 million for the 2016-17 budget.

Regular slots play is taxed at 55 percent in Pennsylvania.

“It’s much the same as if you have a buy-one, get-one free sale and you tax people on the free one. That wouldn’t make any sense,” Freeman said, noting that the move could cost the state tax revenue if casinos cut back on free play. “What we ought to focus on is the volume of tax, not the number of taxes we can create.”

Nationally, the AGA opposes Internal Revenue Service propositions to track gamblers’ winnings through their casino comp cards and to lower the reporting level for winnings from slot machines, keno and bingo to $600 from $1,200.

Neither measure has passed a vote or been enacted.

Gambling expansion would help casinos grow, create more jobs and contribute more local and state taxes, Freeman said.

“There is talk of sports betting. There is talk of online gaming,” Freeman said. “It’s an important conversation to have.”

Rivers General Manager Craig Clark said he would welcome expansions into both areas.

“The more products you can have, and a broad mix of products, the more complete facility you have. The more people you can attract,” said Clark, who noted 4.6 million people visit Rivers each year.

The casino already has a strategy in place for online gambling, should state lawmakers ever legalize it, Clark said.

“I’d love to have sports betting, especially right here near the stadiums,” he said.

That opportunity could come soon, said Alan Silver, an Ohio University professor and casino expert.

“It’s time. It’s going to occur, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Silver said. “I think it’s long due.”

Freeman called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1992, a “terribly failed law.”

The legislation made full-fledged sports betting illegal in every state outside of Nevada, with limited sports betting allowed in Oregon, Montana and Delaware.

New Jersey continues to fight the law in federal court, which has twice rejected the state’s efforts. An appeal is pending before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

The AGA estimated that Nevada Sports Book would handle about $262 million in legal wagers on NCAA March Madness basketball games, which ended with Monday night’s championship game. Yet people bet more than $9 billion illegally across the country, the group estimated.

“Just because you have a law that says it’s illegal doesn’t mean it stops. Prohibition we’ve found in this country doesn’t work very well. It certainly doesn’t work with sports betting,” Freeman said. “The next president is going to have that issue of legalizing sports betting on their desk, and I’m confident they will make the right decision.”

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review assistant city editor. You can contact Jason at 412-320-7936, jcato@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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