Skilled gaming company woos Pennsylvania lawmakers with rodeo trip to Wyoming | News, Sports, Jobs

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HARRISBURG — “It’s the sounds, the lights, the competition or the experience of a lifetime.

Everyone comes for a different reason but leaves a modern cowboy.

So goes the motto of Cheyenne Frontier Days, Wyoming’s premier summer festival billing itself as the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and western celebration, with concerts, carnivals, parades, cookouts, an air show and even professional bullfights. competition.

Last summer, a select group of Pennsylvania lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Center), were able to experience the extravagance for themselves thanks to Pace-O -Matic.

The Georgia-based company makes skill games, slot machines that currently generate millions in revenue and, in Pennsylvania, operates in a legal and regulatory gray area – an area that lawmakers will play a key role in defining.

For some of the lawmakers, it was an all-expenses-paid experience, the company reports said.

The trip to Wyoming is the latest example of a largely behind-the-scenes war for money and influence between operators of games of skill like Pace-O-Matic and owners of casinos and other gaming interests. powerful in the state.

On the one hand, skill game companies want their machines to be officially recognized as legal. On the other side are the casinos and other gambling companies who have been complaining for years that the state’s gambling landscape is oversaturated — and that increased competition will cannibalize the existing market.

As the fight rages on, state lawmakers who have the power to play kingmakers are profiting handsomely, as there are no limits on campaign funds from gambling industry interests, and no limit on the gifts they can receive from them or their lobbyists.

The disclosure of the Wyoming trip, first reported by Spotlight PA, comes amid the legislature’s continued refusal to pass a ban on gifts to blunt the influence of deep-pocketed special interests on elected officials. and their policy making.

Last week, State House leaders again refused to introduce a ban on gifts bill for debate, diminishing its chances of getting a floor vote before the end of the two-year session of the House. legislature in November – and leaving Pennsylvania with the distinction of being one of the few states in the nation without any 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 Pennsylvania lawmakers.

Company spokeswoman Jeanette Krebs said Pace-O-Matic guests received airline tickets, tickets to two concerts and two rodeos, meals and hotel accommodations. The cost per person was around $1,700, excluding airfare, which varied by guest. Benninghoff and Rep. Greg Rothman (R., Cumberland) both attended the event but reimbursed Pace-O-Matic for their expenses, including their hotel stay.

While there, Pennsylvania lawmakers met with Wyoming lawmakers to learn how that state regulates the skill games industry, said Mike Barley, another Pace-O-Matic spokesperson.

“We invited Pennsylvania lawmakers from the House and Senate Gaming Committees and leaders to the event for the opportunity to meet with Wyoming lawmakers to learn how they regulate the skill games industry and how the system is now operating successfully in the state”, Barley said.

He said the company would report all lawmaker-related expenses on its lobbying disclosure forms and that lawmakers should also report the trip in their annual ethics filings. While elected officials are permitted to receive gifts of any value, they must disclose gifts over $250, as well as any travel and hospitality over $650.

Forms for 2022, however, will not be released until May next year.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Benninghoff said he “told the event hosts from the start that he would pay his own expenses for the trip using personal funds, and he paid for all tickets. airfare, accommodation and meals provided at the event .

“Rep. Benninghoff made this trip to learn how another state handled a complex issue in a growing industry,” spokesman Jason Gottesman continued. “He has not and will not allow those who provide amenities or support to the campaign to interfere with him serving Pennsylvania’s best interests.”

Rothman, who Gottesman said also paid his share, did not respond to a request for comment.

State Rep. Sue Helm (R., Dauphin) — who chairs the statehouse gaming oversight committee, the first stop for House bills that deal with gambling — was also present. .

In an interview, Helm, who is not running for re-election this year, said the company paid for his travel and accommodation costs, but claimed that “It was not a lavish trip.

“They weren’t paying for the first class plane ticket,” she said, noting that she was flying economy class.

Pace-O-Matic had a hospitality suite, where Helm said he met with some of the company’s employees and others interested in seeing games of skill regulated and recognized as a legal and important revenue-generating industry.

“I went more for the learning experience,” she said, although she also said she attended two rodeos, a dinner party and a concert.

State Representative Marci Mustello (R., Butler) also traveled to Wyoming at the festival as a guest of Pace-O-Matic, she told Spotlight PA. The company machines, she said, “could be a good source of income” for the State, Taverns and American Legions.

Mustello said she paid for the trip herself with her own funds and was not reimbursed. She did not specify.

The fifth lawmaker who attended, Rep. Jeffrey Wheeland (R., Lycoming), did not return a call seeking comment.

In Pennsylvania, Pace-O-Matic and its games of skill have been the center of fierce debate.

The state legalized slot games 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 they can play it.

Games of skill, however, 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 there are now more than 50,000 machines across Pennsylvania.

The games are not authorized by state gambling law and are not regulated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Therefore, 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.)

This discrepancy has created bad blood, with casino owners and others calling games of skill illegal and pushing for legislation to ban them.

Manufacturers like Pace-O-Matic, meanwhile, claim that games of skill do not constitute games of chance, as they rely on a player’s level of cognitive and physical ability, rather than pure chance, to get a positive result. They want legislation to formally legitimize, regulate and tax their industry – although they have benefited financially from legislative inaction.

Unsurprisingly, both sides have hired top lobbyists and lawyers and found allies in the legislature that have introduced competing bills in recent years. As Spotlight PA reported earlier this year, this sometimes leads to warm relations between lobbyists and lawmakers sometimes working on this issue. Emails obtained by the news agency showed lobbyists at a Pennsylvania casino were drafting shadow legislation for a key Republican senator, participating 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 prominent Republicans in the state Senate returned donations they had received from the skill games industry, citing the fact that it is unregulated.

According to campaign finance reports, the political action committee associated with the skill games industry has paid nearly $1.2 million to lawmakers and other elected officials since the start of 2019. During the same period, the Games of Skill PAC gave $28,500 to Benninghoff, $8,350 to Helm, $2,000 to Mustello, $47,500 to Rothman, and $8,000 to Wheeland.

Despite talk this summer that the legislature could push through a gambling expansion bill this fall, that now seems unlikely, given the few voting days left before the end of its two-year session. in November.

State Senator John Yudichak, the only independent in the chamber, tried for several years to negotiate a compromise on expanding gambling and, in an interview, compared the gambling landscape to a “battlefield.”

“It is very difficult to reach a consensus” said Yudichak, who represents Luzerne County and is not running for office.

Despite his involvement in the issue — Yudichak chairs the state’s Senate committee that deals with gambling issues — he said he didn’t receive an invitation to travel to Wyoming this summer.

Even if he had, he said, he probably wouldn’t have agreed.

“It’s a little too close to the Dallas Cowboys for this Eagles fan,” he said.

Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso contributed to this story.

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