When it comes to gambling, Pennsylvania -- and almost every other state -- has followed the old cliché: If you can't beat them, join them.
Despite opposition from both ends of the political spectrum, the state has embraced casino gambling for one very basic reason: We needed the money. In November alone, Pennsylvania collected more than $1 billion in tax revenue from its 10 casinos. But if we're going to make gambling easier, why not go all the way -- and get there early, for a change?
Online poker is booming. According to a July article in The New York Times, while online poker is not legal in the U.S., Americans still spend about $6 billion annually on websites operated beyond national borders. A federal study last year estimated that legalizing online poker nationwide would create $42 billion in revenue over 10 years.
Although federal legislation has stalled, states are doubling down: California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., all have pending legislation to legalize online gambling. Why can't Pennsylvania be next?
"This is the perfect time for states to move on this," says professor I. Nelson Rose, who teaches gambling law at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif. Conservative Republicans in Congress are unlikely to expand gambling on the national level, he predicts, but they're also "not going to be sending states any financial stimulus in the next two years."
Pennsylvania, like most states, is facing massive budget shortfalls. And online gambling "is clearly a way to raise much-needed tax revenues," Rose says. "It's a sin tax, and those have historically always been much easier for legislators to swallow."
So far, proposed state laws have opened online gambling to state residents only. And other states have figured out how to avoid alienating casino operators: New Jersey proposals allow only in-state casino-license-holders to operate gambling websites.
Rose says Pennsylvania is well positioned to cash in as well: We have the population base, and a network of traditional casino operators like Harrah's has already established itself here.
Rose says online gambling "has worked in some Canadian provinces that are much smaller than Pennsylvania."
The idea may sound crazy today, but Rose says it will seem inevitable tomorrow: "This is the new wave of state-approved gambling. Just like with the lottery and slot casinos, most states eventually get on board because they hate to leave that money on the table."