By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Correspondent
HARRISBURG – The head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Pennsylvania is warning that almost half the VFW posts in the commonwealth will shut their doors if tinkering with the state’s small games of chance laws passed by the Senate clears the state House.
The Senate voted this week to allow bars to begin offering paper-based small games of chance, the sort now available only in social clubs and veterans clubs like the VFW and the American Legion. The issue is expected to be considered by the state House when lawmakers return in November.
Proponents say the measure will help small bars and taverns stay afloat while funneling $150 million in new tax dollars to the state.
Critics like state Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence County, say the push is a money-grab by lawmakers.
“I’m not too keen on the idea of bars doing small games of chance,” Gibbons said.
Bar owners and the state would split all the money brought in from pull-tab games – 60 percent of the money going to Harrisburg and 40 percent in the pocket of the bar owner. Bar owners would also be allowed to hold charity raffles, with only 50 percent of the proceeds going to the charity. The other half of the money would be split with the state using the same 60/40 division.
Based on the state’s calculations, the plan would provide about $52,000 more for each bar owner offering the small games of chance. State Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Northumberland County, said he knows there is opposition to the bill but he pooh-poohed the suggestion that the proposal would drive business away from private clubs. Masser owns a bar in Northumberland County.
“This will just give my (customers) the same opportunity,” he said.
The intent is to provide “mom-and-pop” taverns with a chance to compete with other drinking establishments on a level playing field, Masser said.
Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, said the opposition of the VFW was one of the factors that prompted him to vote against the proposal.
This area’s state senator, Robert D. “Bob” Robbins, Salem Township, R-50th District, voted against the bar gambling.
Gordner also worries that there is a limit on how much interest there is in gambling and at some point, new gaming options are going cannibalize business from older state-run games.
“There will have to be an effect on the Lottery which has been in place for over 35 years and funds senior citizen programs,” Gordner said.
The proposal does more than increase competition, said John Getz, state adjutant for the VFW. Senators stripped out language that would have allowed the veterans clubs and other social clubs to keep the first $40,000 of gaming revenue. This move would be the nail in the coffin for many of the smaller veterans posts in the commonwealth.
Getz predicted that if the bill passes as is, 200 of the 480 VFW posts in Pennsylvania could close.
James Grossman, commander of the Farrell VFW, said his members vote each month on how to use their gaming revenue to help their neighbors. Contacted Thursday, he’d already spent a part of his day writing out checks.
“(The proposed bill) is not to our benefit, which means it’s not a benefit to the community,” Grossman said.
Grossman said he’s certain that the social clubs and veterans organizations are going to lose out.
“(Lawmakers) will find a way to flamboozle” us, he said.
John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@cnhipa