The 2-hour hearing is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. inside Room 120 at the Bayfront Convention Center.
Two months from today, if the May 26 state Supreme Court deadline has passed, and lawmakers fail to come up with a fix for how communities share gambling revenues, millions of dollars in vital gaming funds will stop flowing into Erie County.
The actual money would halt in mid-July, when quarterly checks from Presque Isle Downs & Casino stop being sent to the county, Summit Township, and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority.
The impact of losing $11 million a year gaming revenues would be significant.
Some smaller area nonprofits would be forced to close, eliminating creative outlets for young musicians and after-school programs for children of refugee families living in Erie’s inner city.
Programming and services throughout the county’s library and transit systems would be pinched, and initiatives such as Tech After Hours, the community schools project and the Summer Jobs and More program would be left severely underfunded.
Five county municipalities, including Summit Township, the casino’s host municipality, would see crucial shares of lucrative gambling revenue wiped out, leaders said, leaving their residents open to potential property tax increases.
The difference from this being a stark reality or a “what if?” scenario for the Erie region could hinge on Tuesday’s Pa. State House Gaming Oversight Committee public hearing at the Bayfront Convention Center.
A cross-section of 14 Erie County leaders are scheduled to testify before the committee, aiming to compel members of the Pennsylvania Legislature to fix a 2016 decision by the state Supreme Court that has put millions of dollars in slots revenue in jeopardy.
The Supreme Court ruled on Sept. 28 that the effect of the existing local share assessment on slot machines was unconstitutional because it treats the state’s 12 casinos unequally. A lawsuit filed by Mount Airy Casino argued the assessment violates the state constitution by imposing a heavier tax burden on lower-performing casinos.
The Supreme Court on Jan. 20 gave legislators until May 26 to create a new local share assessment on gaming. The original deadline was Jan. 23.
“I think we’ll meet the May deadline. It’s critical we meet it,” said state Rep. Pat Harkins, of Erie, D-1st Dist., the minority chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee. “Critical to the different areas that rely on these supporting dollars. Critical to the state Supreme Court that already extended our deadline.”
Tuesday’s 2-hour hearing is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. inside Room 120 at the Convention Center, 1 Sassafras Pier. The hearing is open for the public to attend, but the speaker list is not open, officials said.
Those scheduled to give testimony include Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper; Perry Wood, executive director of Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority; Nancy Agostine, Summit Township supervisor; John Buchna, executive director of the Erie Downtown Partnership; and Michael Victor, president of Mercyhurst University.
Dahlkemper and Wood each will have 10 minutes to testify plus a question-and-answer session. Agostine and Erie County Councilman Jay Breneman each will have 5 minutes. The others will each have 3 to 5 minutes to speak at the hearing.
Presque Isle Downs has paid county government about $11 million each year since it opened in February 2007, with $5.5 million going to the county and $5.5 million to ECGRA. Summit Township also receives roughly $1.2 million annually.
Wood said there will be a feeling of urgency at Tuesday’s hearing.
“The clock is ticking. We’re feeling the pressure to keep the heat on the Legislature to find a solution that keeps Erie County whole,” Wood said. “I’ve been cautiously optimistic through this entire process that the Legislature will come to a resolution that keeps us whole, but there is no resolution on the table, and we’re not going to slow down for one second.”
ECGRA needs the same amount of casino revenues the organization has been receiving annually since 2008, Wood said.
“We need to communicate to leadership in Harrisburg that the withdrawal of these funds from our region has real and serious consequences,” ECGRA’s leader said. “We need to educate them on the impact, and that if this money all goes away, it will have a significant negative ripple effect on our economy.”
Harkins said he “pushed to have this hearing in Erie,” and he is expecting between nine and 14 “very bipartisan” committee members to attend. He said municipalities across Pennsylvania are asking how they can get revenues from gambling.
“We want to afford local stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in, to tell us how important this funding is and how they use it,” Harkins said. “Hopefully the committee members take the input and mesh that into one good piece of legislation that works for everybody.”
ECGRA has invested $43 million into the region from its share of gambling revenues since 2009, according to Wood, distributing the money through grants and loans to various nonprofits, agencies and area municipalities.
“Having a designated pot of funding for economic development purposes is so critical for a region like ours,” Wood said. “Where would be without this money? I don’t think we want to find out.”
Gerry Weiss can be reached at 870-1884 or by email. Follow him on twitter at twitter.com/ETNweiss.