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HARRISBURG — “It’s the sounds, the lights, the competition or the experience of a lifetime.
They all come for a different reason but they leave like a modern cowboy.”
That’s the motto of Cheyenne Frontier Days, Wyoming’s premier summer festival that bills itself as the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and western celebration, with concerts, carnivals, parades, cook-offs, a sideshow aerial and even professional bull riding. contests
Last summer, a select group of Pennsylvania lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., center), were able to experience the extravagance for themselves, courtesy of Pace-O-Matic.
The Georgia-based company makes games of skill, slot-like machines that currently generate millions in revenue, and, in Pennsylvania, they operate in a legal and regulatory gray area, one that the legislature will play a key role in defining.
For some of the legislators it was an experience with all expenses paid, indicates information from the company.
The trip to Wyoming is the latest example of a largely behind-the-scenes war of cash and influence between skill game operators like Pace-O-Matic and casino owners and other powerful gaming interests in the state.
On the one hand, skill game companies want their machines to be formally recognized as legal. On the other side are casinos and other gambling companies that have complained for years that the state’s gambling landscape is oversaturated and that increased competition will cannibalize the existing market.
As the fight goes on, the state legislators with the power to play Kingmaker are benefiting greatly, as there are no limits on the campaign money that flows from gaming industry interests, and no limits on the gifts you may receive from them or their lobbyists.
The disclosure of the trip to Wyoming, first reported by Spotlight PA, comes against the backdrop of the legislature’s continued refusal to pass a gift ban to mitigate the influence of wealthy special interests on elected officials and their policymaking. .
Last week, House leaders again refused to debate a gift ban bill, diminishing their chances of getting a full vote before the legislature’s two-year session ends in November. and left Pennsylvania with the distinction of being one of the few states in the nation without boundaries.
In a statement, a Pace-O-Matic spokesperson said the company, through its Wyoming subsidiary Cowboy Skill, was a sponsor of Cheyenne Frontier Days last July and hosted nearly 600 guests at the event, including five legislators. from Pennsylvania.
Company spokeswoman Jeanette Krebs said Pace-O-Matic guests received airfare, tickets to two concerts and two rodeos, meals and hotel rooms. The cost per person was approximately $1,700, not including airfare, which varied depending on the guest. Benninghoff and Rep. Greg Rothman (R., Cumberland) attended the event but reimbursed Pace-O-Matic for his expenses, including his hotel stay.
While there, Pennsylvania lawmakers met with Wyoming lawmakers to learn how that state regulates the skill-gaming industry, said Mike Barley, another spokesman for Pace-O-Matic.
“We invited Pennsylvania legislators from House and Senate gaming committees and leadership to the event for the opportunity to meet with Wyoming legislators to learn how they regulated the skill game industry and how the system now works successfully in the state. barley said.
He said the company would report all expenses related to lawmakers in its lobbying disclosure forms and that it expected lawmakers to report travel in their annual ethics filings as well. Although elected officials can receive gifts of any value, they must disclose gifts worth more than $250, as well as any travel and hospitality over $650.
However, the forms for 2022 will not be made public until May of next year.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Benninghoff said he “told the event hosts from the outset that he would pay for his own cost of the trip with personal funds, and he paid for all airfare, lodging and meals provided at the event. .
“Reps. Benninghoff made this trip to learn how another state has tackled a complex issue in a growing industry.” spokesman Jason Gottesman continued. “He has not and will not allow those who provide campaign services or support to stand in his way of defending Pennsylvania’s best interests.”
Rothman, who Gottesman said also paid on his own, did not respond to a request for comment.
State Representative Sue Helm (R., Dauphin), who chairs the state House Gaming Oversight Committee, the first stop for bills in the chamber dealing with gambling, also attended.
In an interview, Helm, who is not running for re-election this year, said the company paid for his travel and lodging, but maintained that “It was not a luxurious trip.”
“They weren’t paying for first-class airfare,” he said, pointing out that he was flying economy class.
Pace-O-Matic had a hospitality suite, where Helm said he met some of the company’s employees and others interested in seeing skill gaming regulated and recognized as a legal and important revenue-generating industry.
“I went more for the learning experience”, he said, though he also said he attended two rodeos, a dinner and a concert.
State Rep. Marci Mustello (R., Butler) also went to Wyoming for the festival as a Pace-O-Matic guest, she told Spotlight PA. The company machines, she said she, “could be a good source of income” for the state, taverns and American legions.
Mustello said she paid for the trip herself with her personal funds and has not been reimbursed. She did not elaborate.
The fifth lawmaker in attendance, Rep. Jeffrey Wheeland (R., Lycoming), did not return a call seeking comment.
In Pennsylvania, Pace-O-Matic and its games of skill have been at the center of a fierce debate.
The state legalized slot machines in 2004, but since then, the legislature has voted to expand the types of games people can play, including table games, online games, fantasy sports and sports betting, and where can they play them
Skill games, however, have operated for years in a regulatory and legal gray area, even as they continued to pop up in new locations across the state. State officials estimate that there are now more than 50,000 machines in Pennsylvania.
The games are not authorized by state gaming law and are not regulated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. As a result, they are not taxed like other gaming devices. (The state’s 16 casinos and mini-casinos, on the other hand, pay a 54% tax on slot machine revenue.)
That discrepancy has created bad blood, with casino owners and others declaring skill games illegal and pushing for the laws to be outlawed.
Manufacturers like Pace-O-Matic, on the other hand, argue that games of skill are not the same as gambling because they rely on a player’s level of cognitive and physical skill, rather than pure chance, for a successful outcome. They want a law to formally legitimize, regulate and tax their industry, even though they have benefited financially from legislative inaction.
Not surprisingly, both sides have hired top lobbyists and lawyers, and have found allies in the legislature that have introduced competing bills in recent years. As Spotlight PA reported earlier this year, this sometimes leads to cozy relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers working on this issue. Emails obtained by the news organization showed that Pennsylvania casino lobbyists were drafting ghost legislation for a key Republican senator, engaging in strategic planning sessions with him and drafting talking points and other documents for his office.
Both sides have also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of key lawmakers. Last summer, several top Republicans in the state Senate returned donations they had received from the skill game industry, citing the fact that it is unregulated.
According to campaign finance reports, the political action committee associated with the skill game industry has contributed nearly $1.2 million to lawmakers and other elected officials since the beginning of 2019. In that same period, the skill game PAC Ability brought Benninghoff $28,500, Helm $8,350, Mustello $2,000, Rothman $47,500 and Wheeland $8,000.
Despite talk over the summer that the legislature could push through a gaming expansion bill this fall, it now seems unlikely, given the few voting days left before its two-year session ends in November. .
State Senator John Yudichak, the only independent in the chamber, has been trying for several years to negotiate a compromise on expanding the game and, in an interview, compared the gaming landscape to a “battlefield.”
“It is very difficult to generate consensus”, said Yudichak, who represents Luzerne County and is not running for reelection.
Despite his involvement in the issue, Yudichak chairs the state Senate committee that deals with problem gambling, said he did not receive an invitation to travel to Wyoming this summer.
Even if he had, he said, he probably wouldn’t have agreed.
“It’s too close to the Dallas Cowboys for this Eagles fan.” he said.
Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA contributed to this story.
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