Pennsylvania online gambling

Online gambling issues were wrestled by a Pennsylvania House Committee. (Image: SimonsFund.org/thecapitol.com)

Of the many states that have taken up casino gambling over the last decade, none have been more successful than Pennsylvania. In just a few short years, the state overtook neighboring New Jersey (home of Atlantic City) as the leading state for gaming revenue in the northeast, a move that ultimately sparked a casino arms race throughout the region. Now, Pennsylvania appears to be considering a move into the final frontier of the American gaming industry: online gambling.

The Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee held a public hearing last week to discuss the impact that regulating online gambling would have on the state. Over the course of the hearing, issues ranging from the potential social impact of Internet gaming to policy issues, the technology involved and consumer protection were discussed.

A Start to Discussion, Not an End

The hearing was co-chaired by State Representatives Rosita Youngblood (D-Philadelphia) and Tina Davis (D-Bucks). According to Youngblood, the hearing was designed to be a first look at the possibility of bringing online gambling to Pennsylvania, rather than the time to make any decisions.

“The main purpose behind this hearing was to jumpstart the debate and provide a venue for our members to obtain valuable information so that we are prepared to address this issue in the near future,” Youngblood said.

The hearing began with opening remarks, after which four panels were held on various issues surrounding the Internet gambling debate.

Kevin O’Toole, executive director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB), spoke to the agency’s role in the ongoing discussion of the issue.

“The Gaming Control Board, as the regulatory agency, does not advocate for or against Internet gambling,” O’Toole said. “If Internet gambling is authorized in Pennsylvania by the Legislature and the Governor, we do advocate that the existing licensed casino operators be the authorized providers of that activity.”

While O’Toole expressed confidence that the PGCB could oversee online gambling in the state if called upon to do so, he did say that age verification could be one area of concern.

“At the time that a person registered for an online gaming account, his/her information can be verified to ensure proper identity and age,” he said. “However, it becomes more difficult to determine with confidence that no one other than the registered player utilizes that account. This issue needs to be further researched to identify a better process for age verification.”

Regulation Would Protect Consumers

Throughout the hearing, several other major players in the local and national gaming industry were able to share their perspectives as well.

Poker Players Alliance Executive Director John Pappas was the final speaker, and framed the regulation of online poker as a step to protect consumers.

“Our discussion today is not about expansion of gaming, it is about corralling the current unregulated marketplace and turning it into a system that is safe for consumers and accountable to regulators and our government,” Pappas said.

The hearing comes after a Pennsylvania Senate committee commissioned a study on gaming in the state last year. That report was expected to be released by May 1, though it has not yet been made public.

Not all of Pennsylvania’s efforts to expand gambling have gone smoothly. A recent effort to allow taverns to host small games of chance attracted very little interest despite hopes that thousands of venues might apply for licenses, with the cost of licensing and the required background checks having dampened enthusiasm from bar owners.

“Hopefully we will learn our lesson from the debacle we are seeing with the expansion into tavern gaming, and will provide a thorough debate and discussion on this issue before allocating out the revenue it will generate,” Youngblood said.