HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Pennsylvania has not been shy when it comes to expanding gambling.
In recent years, it’s exploded beyond the original slot machine casinos at horse racing facilities. You can now find table games and sports wagering in those casinos, I-Lottery, and video gaming terminals at truck stops.
But another form of gaming has sprouted up across the commonwealth and you can now place your bets in convenience stores and pizza shops. The machines test the skill of players. They are also testing the patience of public officials.
“It’s a fun way to pass the time,” said Marshall Groome, who was found playing at Zembie’s, a sports bar restaurant in Harrisburg.
He had already eaten lunch and was now feeding $20 into a Pennsylvania Skills machine. “It gives you the chance to win some money,” Groome said without lifting his gaze from the whirring wheels on the computer screen in front of him.
Marshall said he plays the lottery and goes to casinos but still prefers PA Skills at his favorite watering hole. “This pays more often and it keeps me more involved instead of just scratching a ticket or mindlessly pushing a button. I stay focused and I feel like I’m actually playing a game instead of random chancing it.”
Zembie’s owner Angelo Karagiannis says he has several customers like Marshall who come specifically for the games and they’ve been an important boost to his business.
“Last Friday we paid out $6,000 [to winners],” Karagiannis said. And, he insists, it’s not just the players that are winning as a result of PA Skills machines.
“It’s definitely helped my business altogether,” he said. “My staff makes a couple more dollars. The customers like it, the staff likes it, the charities like it, and I like it.”
Angelo shares profits with local charities and has the photos to prove it, one showing him donating $2,500 to United Cerebral Palsy.
“I’ve given UCP money two times. I’ve given them a total of $5,000,” Karagiannis said.
But Pennsylvania power brokers are not feeling so charitable.
“The seizure of machines will continue and prosecutions will continue,” said Major Scott Miller with the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement.
After bars and taking 25 machines in 2019, PSP is stepping it up and has snatched 75 thus far in 2020. The machine’s manufacturer calls it unwarranted harassment but state police insist the machines break the law.
“All gambling which is not authorized, or is not legal, is illegal in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Miller said flatly.
But PA courts have not been so clear and are still weighing the legality of PA Skills games. The central question is one of classification, whether they should be taxed and regulated like slot machines or whether they’re more of amusement like a pinball machine.
The judicial ambiguity has fueled an explosion of the machines across the commonwealth and not just in bars, restaurants, VFW’s and Legions. There are thousands inside convenience stores and pizza shops. Photos of kids playing the games can be easily found.
“The current situation is unacceptable,” said Sen. Jake Corman (R), the Majority Leader. “The status quo is unacceptable. We need to bring clarity to it.”
Corman is introducing a bill to classify skill games like VGTs which are legal in truck stops. His bill would tax and regulate the machines and reign in the Wild West gambling.
“They are in non-adult establishments. They’re not having proper supervision of kids playing them. They are having an impact on the lottery,” he said.
Yes, the PA Lottery that had record profits last year. Executive Director Drew Svitko told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week that PA Skills games siphon $200 million a year off its bottom line. PA Skills supporters refute that and point to those record profits as proof that they are doing little harm. Svitko sees it differently and quite plainly.
“Money spent on these illegal skill machines is coming from the Lottery, which is doing good for older Pennsylvanians,” Svitko said. “So the more money spent on those skill machines the less money for older Pennsylvanians.”
PA Skills games have elbowed their way onto the dance floor and have created powerful enemies in the process. The legislature, the governor, state police, the lottery, casinos, and VGT operators all want to kill skill games.
But PA Skills has recruited an all-star cast of its own, battling for its existence. The line-up includes former Congressman Tom Marino, former State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, former Attorney General Prosecutor Frank Fina, whose law license has since been suspended, and the powerful lobbying firm Long-Nyquist and Associates. It also has prominent attorney Matt Haverstick who insists their games are legal and no more problematic than other gambling.
“I go into a Wawa every morning and I see kids around the Lottery kiosk. We all have to do a good job at making sure minors don’t play the games. But it’s not a skill games problem only. The casinos are as bad if not worse offenders than any skill game I’ve seen,” Haverstick said.
But casinos are legal and spend a lot of money on their slot machine licenses. They also turn over a lot of money in taxes. They don’t like competition on every corner and neither do state police, who have a warning for players like Marshall and establishments like Zembie’s.
“Just because we haven’t seized machines from the business down the street doesn’t mean we’re not investigating the business down the street,” Miller said.
Owners of VGTs are especially upset since they fought for years to get machines legalized in truck stops. They initially wanted, and still want, to place them in Legions and VFWs and private clubs. They played by the rules. They are taxed and their machines are hooked up to a statewide computer for oversight. They see PA Skills as rogue machines and would like to see them follow the same rules they’re forced under.
But the game now is one of waiting. Waiting for courts to bring clarity or the legislature to change the law.