PA Lawmakers Hear Testimony on Skill Games, VGTs

A committee of the Pennsylvania state House heard testimony at a public hearing on the legalization of so-called “skill games” (l.) and an expansion of the video gaming terminal market.

Skill-game manufacturer testifies at hearing

A week after a Pennsylvania state Senate committee considered legislation to expand video gaming terminals from the current truck stops to bars and taverns, a state House committee held a public hearing in Ebensburg to consider the same subject, but with an added twist—possible inclusion of so-called “skill games” in the expansion.

Some estimates put the number of unregulated gaming machines purporting to use skill to determine results at more than 20,000, with slot-like games branded “Pennsylvania Skill” operating at locations as diverse as pizza shops and laundromats. The unregistered, untaxed machines are being battled in a campaign began in February by the American Gaming Association and the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers.

Pennsylvania’s 2017 gaming expansion law approved up to five video gaming terminals, subject to the same licensing requirements as casino slots, at truck stops. However, after opposition from the casino industry, the law had been stripped of the provision allowing VGTs in bars and taverns. With the state strapped for revenue due to the Covid-19 casino shutdown, lawmakers are revisiting VGTs for bars.

However, the manufacturer of the Pennsylvania Skill games, Georgia-based Pace-O-Matic, is lobbying for its games—which continued to operate untaxed while the casinos were shut down due to the pandemic—be legalized and regulated under the new legislation being considered.

An official of Pace-O-Matic testified at the public hearing held by the House Democratic Policy Committee at the Ebensburg Municipal Building. The meeting was hosted by Rep. Frank Burns and was attended by several other committee members, some joining remotely.

Rick Goodling, director of state compliance for Pace-O-Matic, testified that the outcome of the Pennsylvania Skill machines is predominantly governed by skill, putting them outside the purview of gaming regulations governing random slot games. “A person with patience and skill can win at our game every time,” Goodling said.

However, an official of the state police, which has seized Pace-O-Matic games as illegal gaming machines, disputed that evaluation. “The element of chance outweighs any element of ‘skill’ that the manufacturer programs into the machine’s software,” testified Major Jeffrey Fisher, director of the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement.

Fisher said the “so-called skill games” are “illegal devices, and urged the lawmakers 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 at the hearing, “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.”

Representatives of bars, taverns and social clubs are pushing for VGTs to be legalized. Rep. Bill Kortz testified before the committee in favor of expanding VGTs to those locations, pointing to success at truck stops as evidence of their potential.

“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—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.”