EBENSBURG – A group of Democratic state legislators heard testimony Tuesday afternoon in Ebensburg from several spokespeople for groups with stakes in supporting or opposing the expansion of video gaming terminals in Pennsylvania.

The testimony was given at a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing hosted by state Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, at Ebensburg Municipal Building. Representatives in attendance included Burns, Rep. Chris Sainato, Rep. Bill Kortz, Rep. Mary Isaacson, Rep. Mark Longietti and several others who joined in remotely, including Rep. Mike Sturla, the chairman of the committee.

At issue were not only the expansion of video gaming terminals (VGTs), which are coin-operated gambling devices similar to slot machines, but also the regulation of “skill games,” which are unregulated gaming devices that have become popular recently in convenience stores, gas stations and similar businesses; their legality is disputed by various stakeholders.

There are an estimated 15,000 such skill games in operation in Pennsylvania under the brand “Pennsylvania Skill,” along with an unknown number of imitators.

The key distinction is that the outcome of a skill game is predominantly governed by the skill of the player, while a VGT player “simply pushes the button and hopes that the machine will eventually pay out,” argued Rick Goodling, director of state compliance for Pace-O-Matic, which distributes the “Pennsylvania Skill” devices.

“A person with patience and skill can win at our game every time,” Goodling claimed.

That characterization was disputed by Major Jeffrey Fisher, director of the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, who argued that “the element of chance outweighs any element of ‘skill’ that the manufacturer programs into the machine’s software.”

Fisher called the games “illegal devices” and “so-called ‘skill games’ ” and asked the legislators in attendance to provide “prompt clarity in the law regarding these types of devices, as this will facilitate compliance by business owners and licensees and provide law enforcement with a more efficient means to prosecute those who continue to violate the law.”

“I was just at a pizza shop for lunch today,” Burns said, “and there was one of these machines in there. I was at the pharmacy yesterday, and there was a machine in there. These machines are popping up everywhere, and I refuse to believe that the people that own these businesses are criminals and that they’re trying to do something malicious. They believe that these machines are legal, and I think it’s our job to either provide clarity or to regulate this. … Either way – clarity on the law, or we regulate the industry that is bubbling under the surface right now.”

The state, as part of Act 42 of 2017, which allows for the expansion of gambling in Pennsylvania, authorized the installation of some VGTs in truck stops around the state as part of a “pilot program.” That program was successful and thus serves as evidence that Pennsylvania should allow VGTs into establishments with liquor licenses, argued Rich Teitelbaum, president of the Pennsylvania Video Gaming Association, a trade association representing members of the VGT industry.

Proponents of VGTs and skill games alike framed them as a means to survival for fraternal organizations and small businesses that have faced financial struggles in recent years. That was an argument that had at least one sympathizer on the policy committee.

“I sure hope we can do something with the VGTs in the Legislature,” said Kortz, “because I’ve had a VFW back my way shut down two years ago. They just couldn’t make a go of it. The Glassport American Legion, which is two miles from my home

– just several years ago, they couldn’t pay their light bill. I ran over there and put $300 down out of my pocket to keep them going.

“These machines help these clubs, and I know I’m preaching to the choir, but we need to do something to help these fraternal organizations, like the VFW, the American Legion, the volunteer fire departments, because it does help them pay the electric bill.”

Two pieces of written testimony submitted to the committee – one from Drew Svitko, executive director of the Pennsylvania Lottery, and the other from Faith Haeussler and Mickey Flynn, executive director and chair, respectively, of the Pennsylvania Council on Aging – opposed any expansion of VGTs on the grounds that they could undercut the Lottery, which funds state programs for older adults.

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.

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