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Pennsylvania Wants Video Poker Legalized to Pay for College Tuition

Written by:
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Published on:
Feb/05/2009

(Associated Press) Gov. Ed Rendell on Tuesday proposed legalizing video poker machines and using the money they generate to help ease the pain of tuition for thousands of Pennsylvania college students.

Rendell wants the Legislature to legalize the machines at bars and private clubs. State officials estimate that at 17,000 illegal poker machines are operating in Pennsylvania.

Students whose family income is less than $100,000 would be eligible for as much as $7,600 in financial aid for tuition, books, fees, and room and board if they are entering any of the state's 14 universities and 14 community colleges this fall.  

Making college more affordable over the long term has been a high priority for the administration, but the national economy has made the situation more urgent for students and their families as their savings drop, Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said.

"The urgency is now, because this year's seniors, this year's juniors in high school, are at the doorstep," Zahorchak said. "We don't want to turn away tens of thousands of kids ... during a recession."

In November, the state Education Department said in a report that Pennsylvania has the nation's sixth-highest public college education cost, $532 more than the national average. Students on average graduate with more than $19,000 in debt, higher than students in many other states.

The proposal would eventually help more than 170,000 students and generate $550 million annually for tuition help through a tax on 50 percent of the net proceeds of the machines, Acting Revenue Secretary Stephen H. Stetler said. Video poker machines have been legalized in nine other states, most recently in Ohio, Stetler said.

The state's approximately 14,000 bars and other establishments that have liquor licenses would be permitted as many as five video poker machines. The state's revenue estimate assumes that 8,800 will seek licenses for an average of four machines each, Stetler said.

Legalizing the machines will allow state troopers to spend more time investigating serious crimes and less seizing illegal poker machines, said State Police Commissioner Frank Pawlowski.

The establishments will have to buy machines that comply with state standards and connect them to a centralized computer system, like the slot machines used by Pennsylvania's seven casinos, Pawlowski said.

Bar and tavern owners have long sought to legalize video poker.

"This is the first time the governor is taking the lead on video gaming issues, and we are ecstatic," said Amy Christie, executive director of the Pennsylvania Tavern Association.

Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for Mount Airy Casino Resort in the Pocono Mountains, said he doesn't think the legalization of video poker machines will present a new competitive threat for the casinos, since so many already operate illegally.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said he supports an expansion of college financial aid but questioned whether legalizing video poker machines was the right approach.

"It is not clear how (Rendell) intends to win legislative support, especially since bills to legalize video poker have been introduced for at least a quarter-century without becoming law," said Pileggi, R-Delaware. "Serious concerns will be raised about licensing, regulation and enforcement - the same kind of concerns that have been raised about the oversight of casinos in Pennsylvania."

Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College in suburban Philadelphia, said she has recently seen a very troubling statistic at her school - 700 students who have been dropped from the rolls between the fall and spring semester for not paying their tuition bills.

"I worry about where those students are," said Stout, whose school enrolls about 18,000 students. "I don't think they'll be making their way back into the pipeline."

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