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Pa. gambling expansion key as budget agreement nears

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Democrats and Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature aren't exactly giving themselves hugs and high-fives yet, but they are much closer to passing a state budget this year than they were at this time 12 months ago.

With a June 30 deadline looming, budget negotiations continue to take place between leadership staff members. According to House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana), both sides are separated by only a few hundred million dollars. Governor Wolf's plan is currently at a projected $32 billion, Reed said, down from his original $32.7 billion proposal he made in February. Meanwhile, Republicans are between $31 billion and $31.5 billion.

"Our goal (to reach an agreement) is an end date of June 30, or around that time frame," Reed said. "I think the tone has been much better this year. Everyone has come to table legitimately wanting to get this done. Instead of negotiating between press releases, we've been more focused on negotiating with each other."

No final agreements have been made.

Reed expects leaders in the House and Senate to work through the weekend to reach an agreement with Governor Wolf. General Assembly members should expect to return on Sunday, ready to finalize a 2016-17 spending plan.

Gov. Wolf said on KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh earlier this week his goals for a state budget can be met without an increase on sales or income taxes. He remains focused on a $250 million increase for public schools and $34 million on opioid addiction programs.

He is also open to an expansion in the state's gambling business, which was voted on by House members this week.

On Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats agreed to allow slot machines into off-track betting sites as well as the state's six international airports. Pennsylvania would be in line to become the fourth state to allow casino-based internet gaming on smart phones, tablets, and other electronic devices. Daily fantasy sports would also be regulated by state government.

The bill does not include video game terminals, or VGTs. The proposal would have placed up to five VGTs in taverns, bars, and other private clubs.

"We're trying to regulate it so we can control minors, and people who have a gambling problem aren't on there losing money," Payne said.

The state would also get a decent cut. Gaming expansion would lead to an estimated $200 to $250 million in annual revenue, according to House Gaming Committee Chairman John Payne (R-Dauphin). Gov. Wolf wants to ensure that revenue is sustainable and recurring and that it doesn't impact the Pennsylvania Lottery, which benefits the state's senior citizen community.

The bill passed 115-80, with support from 58 Republicans and 57 Democrats.

"This is one piece to a larger pie of the commonwealth budget," said Rep. Kevin Schreiber (D-York).

Other pieces include recently passed items on liquor reform, which could bring in an additional $150 million in state revenue, and raised taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco, which could carry a $500 million revenue tag.