By Mark Shade
HARRISBURG, Pa — Volunteer fire departments and veterans organizations throughout Pennsylvania are breathing a little easier after Gov. Tom Corbett agreed Thursday to delay the reporting requirements for the many revenue-generating small games of chance they operate.
State Sens. Richard Kasunic, D-Dunbar, and Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, are the ones who worked with the administration to get the one-year reprieve.
The lawmakers say they have been peppered with complaints that the new reporting requirements, which were scheduled to begin Feb. 1, would have crippled fundraising efforts and threatened the existence of nonprofit groups.
Corbett signed the updated law on Feb. 2, 2012.
"The last life fire companies have in them now is the ability to raise money," said A.J. Boni, an assistant fire chief with the Perry Township, Fayette County, volunteer fire department, and a township supervisor.
"With all of the casinos coming in and the bingos being passe, (the law) would hinder us from doing these things," said Boni, who has been with the Perry Township VFD for 30 years.
Most lawmakers and many nonprofit groups celebrated the update to the state's small games of chance act when it happened nearly a year ago.
Only 16 of the state's 238 lawmakers voted against the small games law changes, which increased the individual prize limits from $500 to $1,000 and allowed groups to award up to $25,000 each week.
Rep. Paul Clymer, R-145, was one of the ones who voted against the changes to the small games of chance law.
"I knew from the outset there were going to be problems with the legislation," Clymer said while adding he does not have a problem with the governor's decision to delay the reporting requirements of the new law.
The law's changes also required small games of chance operators to become licensed and maintain a separate bank account for game proceeds. But licensees could now use up to 30 percent of small games revenue for operational expenses. Something they could not do before. The balance of the revenue had to be used for "public interest purposes."
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Pennsylvania Federation of Fraternal and Social Organizations, and the Pennsylvania Association of Nationally Chartered Organizations supported the changes.
But the reality of those changes disclosed some "unintended consequences," Solobay said.
The overarching reality, Kasunic said, was that the changes to the law were rushed.
"Sometimes when you rush things through too quickly, as we did with this, many things were missed and some things were put into law that were just making it impossible for some of these fire companies and the legions to be able to comply with the law," Kasunic said.
Boni said his fire department responds to 200 emergency calls each year. His township, which wraps around Perryopolis Borough like a doughnut, sends firefighters throughout the 20-square-mile municipality and all of its state game lands and Youghiogheny River trails.
Small games of chance, he said, accounts for 80 percent of the fire department's revenue. And its ability to raise money is especially important now because Perry Township recently purchased a $420,000 engine that the department will be making $2,600 monthly payments on for the next 20 years.
"It's a lot of hoagies (to sell as fundraisers)," Boni said.
Most small games of chance for the fire department are in the form of bashes involving toys, cash and purses.
"If there's something out there, they bash it. Let's put it that way," he said.
Solobay said as he knows of as many as 14 possible changes to the revised law, including allowing people to sell chances to people who live outside an organization's county, and giving organizations the ability to annually roll over funds.
"You may need to raise money for 2 to 5 years to get a nice down payment (for a truck) and you're not going to be able to roll it over? That didn't make sense," Solobay said.
Kasunic said he has four bills ready to go for when the legislature returns this month. One of the proposals would allow organizations to spend half of their small games revenues on operating expenses.
Boni said he doesn't think organizations that operate small games of chance should be required to do any more than the Pennsylvania Lottery.
"If you come to one of our bashes and win a purse that's valued at $150, I need your name, address and phone number under this legislation, because you won a purse that's over $100. If you go to a local convenience store and buy a scratch off and win $300, they hand you your cash and you walk out (with the cash)," he said.
The Corbett administration said it agreed to the one-year delay in response to the concerns of Boni and others throughout the state.
"The one-year delay will allow us to determine whether there are undue or unintended burdens, whether a legislative change is warranted and what outreach to the regulated community is appropriate," said Department of Revenue Press Secretary Elizabeth Brassell. "In any case, accountability in the conduct of these games remains a critical element going forward."
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