$11 million at stake for Erie County.
State Rep. Patrick Harkins is not taking any chances.
The Democratic legislator, who represents Erie's east side, is about to introduce a stand-alone bill that would amend Pennsylvania's gambling law by a May 26 deadline imposed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
At issue is the law's local share assessment, which determines how much gambling revenue is distributed to counties and municipalities that host casinos. The state Supreme Court ruled in September that the local share formula of the existing gaming law is unconstitutional, and gave lawmakers several months to come up with a fix.
But legislators have been slow to address the issue, putting at risk crucial revenue Erie County has relied on to fund essential services as well as a variety of community and economic development programs and projects.
The county gets roughly $11 million annually from Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Summit Township.
Lawmakers are said to be developing omnibus legislation to expand gambling in Pennsylvania and fix the local share assessment. But Harkins wants a stand-alone bill available in case a majority of lawmakers are unable to agree on the other proposals, which could include legalizing internet gambling in the state, and the use of video gaming terminals in bars, restaurants and some airports.
"I wanted to make sure to have something ready to go just in case any issues arise," Harkins said.
He hopes it doesn't come to that. He said state senators are now putting gaming legislation together. The House recently sent a bill, HB 271, to the Senate that, among other things, would authorize airport gaming. Harkins said the Senate has a chance to amend the bill to include a fix for the local share assessment.
"While nothing is set in stone, I would expect that the Senate would likely have something back to the House within the next couple of weeks," Harkins said on Thursday.
Any bill would have to pass through the House Gaming Oversight Committee, of which Harkins is minority chairman.
Last month the committee held a public hearing in Erie to gather feedback from local officials about how casino money has benefited the region. More hearings throughout the state are scheduled over the next two weeks.
"We are staying quite active as we continue to take an in-depth look at all the options that exist," Harkins said.
The state’s gaming law, which took effect in 2004, mandates that host municipalities/counties annually receive 2 percent of gross slot machine revenues or $10 million, whichever is greater. But a lawsuit filed by Mount Airy Casino in the Pocono Mountains argued the assessment violates the state constitution by imposing a heavier tax burden on lower-performing casinos. And the Supreme Court agreed, ruling the local share assessment is unconstitutional because it treats the state’s 12 casinos unequally.
Harkins' bill would require Category 1 casinos, like Presque Isle Downs, and Category 2 casinos to distribute a flat fee of $10 million to their host communities.
In Erie County, casino funds have been split between Erie County government and the grant-making Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority. Summit Township gets its own share.
Harkins' bill would add the City of Erie into the mix.
The city would receive $100,000 of the slots revenue allocated to the county, as well as 10 percent of the table games revenue allocated to the Gaming Revenue Authority. Earlier this year, City Council passed a resolution asking state lawmakers to support such an arrangement. Council said it would split the money with the financially-strapped Erie School District.
Harkins' bill would also allocate funds for Lebanon County, which shares a casino with Dauphin County but doesn't receive any gaming revenue.
"I wanted to be reasonable and not ruffle too many feathers while still trying to be fair to the taxpayers of Lebanon County and the City of Erie, respectively," Harkins said.
State Sen. Dan Laughlin, of Millcreek Township, R-49th district, recently expressed confidence that Erie County's share of gaming revenue will be preserved in full, even as lawmakers from districts without casinos look for a share of the money.
"The local share, I believe fully, will be fixed and we will be made whole here," Laughlin said early this month before a crowd of local business leaders. "We should get every bit that we were getting and maybe a little bit more."
Still, he could not provide specifics when asked for a more recent update on legislative progress in the Senate.
"We are still hashing out the details," he said.
Perry Wood, executive director of the Gaming Revenue Authority, said he has heard directly from Republican state Sen. Mario Scavello, who chairs the Senate's Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee, where HB 271 awaits action.
Wood said Scavello, whose district includes the Mount Airy Casino, told him no consensus has emerged on how to address the local share issue, but that he was well aware of Erie County's situation and would take it into account.
Scavello represents the state's 40th Senate District, which includes parts of Monroe and Northampton counties.
Scavello told the Erie Times-News on Friday that he was confident the legislature will meet the May 26 deadline and preserve Erie County's funding. He said he is working closely with Laughlin to make that happen.
"Once you get something and are accustomed to using it for the right reasons, you can't take that away," Scavello said. "The goal is to make your community whole."
Wood said Erie County made a positive impression on the House committee in March.
"I guarantee they'll have Erie in the back of their minds," Wood said. "They know a good thing is happening here with gaming funds and they are not going to want to screw that up."
In Summit Township, which gets about $1.2 million in gaming money annually, the casino has created new demands on township operations.
Since the casino opened in 2007, the township has seen new businesses and hotels spring up, and an increase in traffic. More people in the township also have meant more emergency calls. The township only recently established a paid, full-time EMS service.
"It does involve a lot of work to be the host municipality," Township Supervisor Jack Lee Jr. said. "We don't want to see the money go away."
Lee said he has heard nothing but confidence from local lawmakers about the fate of the casino money.
"They believe nothing is going to change and that they will pass a bill to keep the gaming money the status quo," he said.
However, May 26 is drawing near.
Nico Salvatori can be reached at 870-1714 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNsalvatori.