After last week’s frantic activity in the Pennsylvania state legislature, we expected this to happen, but nonetheless, it is a relief that on Monday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed the gambling expansion bill that will, among other things, legalize online gambling, including poker.
The Pennsylvania Senate passed HB 271 on Wednesday by a 31-19 vote and the House passed it Thursday morning, 109-72, sending the gambling bill to Governor Wolf’s desk. It was expected he was sign it and he did not disappoint in that regard, announcing at the Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg on Monday that he did so.
Now legal in Pennsylvania are online poker, online table games, online slots, daily fantasy sports, and internet lottery sales. The law also authorizes tablet gaming areas in airports, video gaming terminals (VGTs) at qualified truck stops, and ten “satellite casinos.”
The topic of VGTs was particularly divisive, as the Senate for a long time did not want to allow them at all, as there was fear that a) VGTs would take business away from casinos, and b) they simply expanded gambling too far. The Senate eventually compromised with the House and VGTs were allowed at truck stops, a more limited expansion than the bars, restaurants, and private clubs that the House wanted.
As for online poker, the twelve land-based casinos in the state will get the first chance to apply for licenses. The application will be pricey: $4 million for online poker alone. Online table games and online slots require separate licenses at the price of $4 million each, as well. If a casino applies for all three licenses within 90 days, it can save money and pay $10 million total.
The tax rate will be 14 percent on gross gaming revenue plus an additional 2 percent local tax. That works fine, though the $4 million fee just for applying for a license could make some casinos and potential operators balk.
The biggest problem with the bill, as we have discussed before, is that the tax rate for online slots is the 2 percent local tax plus – get this – 54 percent on gross revenue. That’s right. Online slots will be taxed 56 percent. More than half. It was widely considered that this – combined with the separate $4 million application fee – will kill this part of the industry before it even starts.
New Jersey online gambling is taxed in the teens and the operators barely make a profit on slots. Yet supporters of the 54 percent (plus 2 percent) tax cite the same tax on brick-and-mortar casinos as the reason why online casinos should have no problem with it. They fail to understand, though, that physical casinos have revenue streams from restaurants, hotel, and shopping to lean on, while online operators have none of that.
We’ll see how that plays out. In the meantime, the wait now starts for online poker to actually launch in Pennsylvania. There is a 60-day waiting period before anything can start, but realistically, it will probably take the better part of a year to get things up and running, as all the regulations have to be put in place, operators need to be vetted, etc.