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Archives for 2018-09-11
On Wednesday the Pennsylvania Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee (or just CERD for short) will lay all of its cards on the table when it hosts a hearing on comprehensive gambling reform in the Keystone State. The hearing will touch on all of the topics from a new bill introduced on Tuesday, SB 900. SB 900 covers a number of gaming reforms ranging from online gambling to the elimination of the membership fee that Category 3 casinos are required to collect. The new legislation is sponsored by Senator Kim Ward, and cosponsored by all nine Republicans on the CERD Committee which includes Senate President pro tempore Joe Scarnati. The following four questions will hopefully be answered at the hearing, and the answers will likely be a barometer of whether or not online gambling will be included in the state’s upcoming budget for FY2016. 4. Is Parx still calling for in-person registrations? In 2014 Parx Casino took an apathetic view towards online gaming expansion in Pennsylvania. Parx Chairman Bob Green told lawmakers he wasn’t sold on online gaming expansion, but if it was being discussed Parx would be involved in shaping the law and if it passed, Parx would offer online gambling. Parx later partnered with GameAccount Network, one of the few announced partnerships in Pennsylvania. However, in 2015 Parx floated the idea of in-person registrations, which is included in SB 900 and considered anathema to iGaming analysts. If the company is adamant about this restriction, it might derail online gambling expansion as this will be a poison pill to a lot of other casinos. 3. Have any other partnerships been formed? At a previous hearing we learned of the partnership between 888 and Mount Airy Casino, so it’s not out of the question that other partnerships may be informally mentioned or officially announced at Wednesday’s hearing. If new partnerships are talked about in the abstract (more likely) or if a casino representative will name a specific company (less likely), it would be a good sign for online gambling expansion in the state. 2. How much is Sands going to fight PA online gambling? This will likely be more of a “read between the lines” kind of answer, as Sands representative Mark Juliano, the President of Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, will almost certainly tow the company, and Sheldon Adelson’s, line and be vociferously opposed to iGaming. How these protestations are received by the committee will be far more telling than anything Juliano says. If Sands has been pushing behind the scenes, I would expect some lawmakers to bring up these concerns unprompted, and perhaps lead Juliano down the “bash online gambling” trail. On the other hand, if Sands is resigned to online gambling coming to Pennsylvania (which could be the case), the fear-mongering at the hearing may be muted, and lawmakers will likely ignore or even challenge some of Juliano’s assertions. 1. What revenue projections will the state use? The million dollar question will of course be what amount of revenue can Pennsylvania generate from online gambling, and will it be enough to bring Governor Tom Wolf to the bargaining table with some of his tax proposals in hand? This is also important for another reason, as Pennsylvania doesn’t want to come up short in an attempt to shoot the moon, effectively pulling a New Jersey by making revenue predictions the industry simply cannot live up to. Fortunately, even the high-end estimates are nowhere near as ridiculous as New Jersey’s early predictions.
Emissaries from numerous Pennsylvania casinos were on hand in Harrisburg last week for a public hearing held by Senator Kim Ward’s Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee. A large portion of Wednesday’s conversation surrounded online gaming legalization, an effort which now appears to command sizeable support among both state lawmakers and casino representatives. In attendance at the hearing were delegates from Pennsylvania’s Sugarhouse, Rivers, Meadows, Penn National, Sands Bethlehem, Harrah’s, Parx, and Valley Forge casinos. Each casino supported online gaming regulation to some extent, with the exception of Sheldon Adelson’s Sands which, predictably, opposed the bill outright. Absent from the conversation were Mohegan and Presque, as well as Live! Hotel & Casino, which is still under construction and slated to open next year in Philadelphia. Debating SB 900 The hearing represented a growing legislative trend of support for online gambling in Pennsylvania. Five regulatory bills have already been introduced in 2015, and SB 900 is the latest such effort from state lawmakers. Sponsored by Ward, SB 900 was the immediate cause for last week’s committee hearing, which also delved occasionally into questions of tavern gaming and liquor laws. SB 900 included language championed by Parx boss Bob Green, which would require online players to register in-person at a casino. Even as Green reiterated his support for live registration at Wednesday’s hearing, others in attendance condemned the approach as impractical and potentially costly. The caveat was a central cause for SB 900’s initially cold reception, but at the hearing, Ward noted the terms of the bill were not yet finalized. Such a requirement could become a sticking point that has a chance of derailing PA online gaming legislation. Casino execs support legalizing PA online gambling “We are in favor of online gaming, as long as it’s affordable and the details are ferreted out,” said Meadows General Manager Sean Sullivan. “We have to be considerate of what the fee of entry is, and what the taxes are.” Sullivan said land-based casinos in nearby West Virginia and Ohio are currently “pillaging” business in the state. Caesars Vice President Michael Cohen told lawmakers online gaming would attract a huge, younger demographic not currently drawn to brick and mortar establishments. Four-fifths of online registrants are entirely new players, Cohen said, of which fifteen percent then venture into live casinos for the first time. “Acquiring new players is the lifeblood of the industry,” said Richard Schwartz of Harrah’s, who also spoke out against the live registration system proposed by Green, comparing the process to registering for Netflix at a movie theater. Legalized online gaming would counteract the “poaching” of Pennsylvania players, Schwartz said, adding it would lead to “little overlap” with land-based receipts. Tax questions remain For Pennsylvania casinos to compete in the online marketplace, Schwartz emphasized a need for finalized legislation to mandate a tax equal to or below that of New Jersey, noting that many offshore operators are subject to tax rates as low as one percent. But Senator Robert Tomlinson, a member of Ward’s committee, condemned Schwartz’s call for a tax rate of 15 percent or lower. Casinos would capitalize on higher online profit margins, Tomlinson argued, and divest from brick and mortar operations. “If you see an advantage in the tax rate, you’re going to take advantage of that,” Tomlinson said. “If we give you a tax rate that incentivizes you to give people a cell phone and an app and go home, that’s a scary point to me.”
The American Gaming Association has come out against a recent proposal by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf that seeks to impose a tax on promotional credits handed out by the state’s casinos. The AGA’s position on the tax In a letter sent to Governor Wolf and key legislators, AGA Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Sara Rayme wrote: “… the American Gaming Association (AGA) has serious concerns with your proposal to tax promotional credits, a crucial marketing tool for casinos that generates millions of dollars in tax revenues for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania each year.” The AGA letter goes on to say that the new tax would likely have the opposite effect the Governor intends; a concern I broached when the governor’s plan was first introduced a week ago. As Rayme notes, “While we appreciate the difficult budget deficit facing Pennsylvania, taxing promotional credits would likely lead to a decrease in tax revenue from casinos – the exact opposite of the intended result.” If Wolf’s plan were adopted it’s likely the value of promotional credits would reach a tipping point, and many casinos would drastically cut down on the amount of promotional credits they give away. As the AGA notes, this could lead to less visitation and traffic in the state’s casinos and therefore less revenue for the state. The letter also makes note of the already high tax burden Pennsylvania casinos pay, as 55% of slot machine revenue and 14% of all table game revenue goes directly to the state. According to the Morning Call, the casinos that would be hardest hit by Wolf’s proposed tax would be AGA members, Las Vegas Sands (Sands Bethlehem), Greenwood Racing (Parx Casino), Rush Street Gaming (Rivers Casino and Sugarhouse Casinos), Penn National (Hollywood Casino), Caesars Entertainment (Harrah’s), and the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority (Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs). Two of those entities, Las Vegas Sands and Caesars are among the heavy hitters of the casino industry and the AGA. Wolf’s proposal Under Wolf’s promotional tax plan, casinos would have to pay an 8% tax on free slot play and match play coupons and vouchers for table games, essentially charging them to run what have historically been considered marketing campaigns to attract customers. These giveaways are seen as the fuel that brings day trippers to the casinos by bus from as far off as New York City. The AGA likened these promotional credits to grocery store coupons, or a BoGo offer sent to specific customers by a shoe store, although I would have compared them to free appetizers at a bar or some other loss-leader. In the letter Rayme made the following case for promotional credits: “Promotional credit marketing programs in casinos are no different than grocery store coupons, which are widely used to attract more customers to purchase and consume more goods. Direct marketing, which involves sending promotional free play to patrons, is much like a shoe store sending a customer a buy one, get one free coupon. Promotional credits are a critical part of casino marketing because they:
Incentivize customers to increase their real-money wagering and spur increased visitation;
Empower casino operators to respond to market conditions, customers’ preferences and the broader economic environment; and
More than triple the return on investment of issuing promotional credits.” The bigger picture It should also be noted that this fight is taking place amid a backdrop of a budget stalemate between the governor and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that has gone on for over six months. Wolf’s proposal could very well be the governor throwing every idea against the wall to see if anything sticks, since the longer the stalemate goes, the worse it will be for all Pennsylvanians. The legislature is also considering a massive gaming expansion package that would legalize online gaming in the state; add slot machines to select airports and off-track-betting parlors; make structural changes to casino licenses; and perhaps legalize daily fantasy sports in the Keystone State.
A new budget proposal (for the FY 2016/2017 budget) by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf would impose an 8 percent tax on promotional play at the state’s 12 casinos. Based on 2015 promotional play numbers, this new tax would create an additional $50.9 million in revenue for the state. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story. Promotional play vouchers are generally given to active and inactive players in a casino’s database to entice them to visit the casino, and can take the form of a free $10 in slot play (or more depending on the person’s betting habits), or even a $20 match play on table games, where the casino matches a person’s $20 bet. Promotional play is also a huge lure for organized bus trips, where riders receive promotional play dollars that usually exceed the cost of their bus ticket. The governor’s proposal is universally opposed The state’s casinos are unlikely to approve of this new proposal, and are already pushing back against the idea. In response to the news, Las Vegas Sands spokesperson Ron Reese, whose Sands Bethlehem Casino is the biggest purveyor of promotional play coupons, told the Morning Call, “Any time money is taken out, it’s going to affect reinvestment in the property and the creation of future jobs. This proposal is bad for jobs in the Lehigh Valley and beyond. There’s certainly no shortage of taxes already being paid.” Promotional play is already a loss leader for the casino, and a state-imposed tax will likely curtail a casino’s usage of it. With less promotional play, casinos may see a drop in traffic, which would of course lead to a loss in revenue – revenue the state collects 54 percent of when it comes to slot machines, and 14 percent of when it comes to table games. Mohegan Sun’s CEO Michael Bean said as much to the Morning Call, indicating that while only an 8 percent tax, it could be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. “It’s a primary marketing tool for us, but there’s a tipping point,” Bean said. “It’s going to cost us $3.7 million on top of the $125 million we already pay. At some point, if it’s going to be a handicap, you’re going to have to spend less. That’s not good for us or the state.” Essentially, Wolf’s proposal, meant to increase the state’s tax revenue from casinos, could have the unintended consequence of lessening the amount of money the state collects from gaming overall. A letter, signed by all 12 of the state’s casinos and sent to the governor last week said as much: Budget problems and other gaming reforms As noted in the opening, this proposal is for the 2016/2017 Pennsylvania budget, but the state still hasn’t passed its 2015/2016 budget, which was due back in July of 2015, a stalemate that becomes more and more of a crisis with each passing day. The proposal is also strange considering the state legislature is expected to vote on a massive gaming reform bill that would generate far more tax revenue than Wolf’s proposal, and in a less controversial way. Among the state’s brick and mortar casinos, there is a near unanimous consensus when it comes to the omnibus gaming reform bill, HB 649, which includes the addition of slot machines at designated airports and off-track betting parlors, and the legalization and regulation of online gambling. However, HB 649 has been earmarked to fix the state’s state pension deficit, and is not being used to solve the state’s budget stalemate – although there have been halfhearted attempts to shift HB 649 into the budget. According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative John Payne, if HB 649 were shifted to the budget it would lead to the legislature having to vote on tax increases to solve the pension deficit. Payne noted this is something few legislators were likely to do in an election year. Image George Sheldon / Shutterstock.com