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State Senate OKs gambling expansion measure

Legislation expanding the scope of gambling in Delaware is on its way to Governor Jack Markell’s (D) desk. The state Senate passed House Bill 333 Wednesday, paving the way for the state to begin offering online gambling. The bill, backed by the Markell administration, will also introduce Keno and parlay betting on professional football games to sites beyond the three racetrack casinos (racinos) where they are currently allowed.

The Delaware Gaming Competitiveness Act of 2012 allows online versions of slots and table games to be played within the state’s border, as well as online sale of Delaware Lottery tickets. It also authorizes up to 100 new sites to offer Keno and 20 to 30 new outlets for parlay betting on NFL games

The Senate passed the bill 14-6 with one member not voting. The vote was delayed by a day when uncertainly arose Tuesday regarding whether the bill had the votes needed to pass. There was some confusion surrounding the vote, which required 13 in favor to pass. Sen. Robert Venables (D-Laurel) was among the “yes” votes Wednesday, but said afterward that he had intended to vote “no. “ He is considering asking to recall the vote.

The House passed the bill earlier this month 29-8, with four representatives not voting.

[audio:|titles=Gov. Jack Markell reacts to Senate passage of the Delaware Gaming Competitiveness Act of 2012.]

“I’m grateful to the members of the General Assembly for doing what they’ve done to help protect the jobs of an important industry,” said Gov. Markell. “We’re talking about a couple thousand jobs in this industry and that’s what this is about.”

Debate in the state Senate weighed the desire to help Delaware’s current racinos stave off increasing competition that could force them to cut jobs against the issues that expanding gambling online could create with compulsive gamblers and minors.

“I think this is going to be a hard vote for a lot of people,” said Senate President Pro Tem Anthony DeLuca (D-Varlano), who was among the bill’s sponsors.

Senator David Lawson (R-Marydel) and Senator Colin Bonini (R-Dover South) offered an amendment that would have provided financial relief to Delaware’s racinos without expanding gaming. The amendment would have given Delaware’s racinos a greater share of revenue from the games currently offered, without adding new gaming venues or options.

“We don’t need in-home gambling in this state. We have enough vices out there now,” said Sen. Lawson, arguing the bill could make gambling accessible to minors, and create more gambling addiction.” Lawson says the amendment would have allowed the legislature to protect casino jobs while not expanding gambling.

The amendment was defeated 14-6 with one Senator not voting.

[audio:|titles=Delaware Standardbred Owners Assoc. Exec. Director Sal DiMario discusses resolution of the horsemen's concerns with the Delaware Gaming Competitiveness Act.]

Senator Bruce Ennis (D-Smyrna) was prepared to offer another amendment to address the share of gambling revenue provided to purses for Delaware’s horsemen, but he decided to strike the amendment after an agreement was reached between the horsemen and the governor’s office to examine the horsemen’s share next year.

“The administration has agreed to sit down with us and work something out,” said Delaware Standardbred Owners Association Executive Director Sal DiMario. “We’ve got some parameters and we’re comfortable with those.”

HB 333 drew support from the state’s three existing racinos, Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway. The racinos had previously opposed efforts to expand gambling options in the state, but supported this measure because it will lower the amount of fees they pay the state to operate slots and table games by up to $7.75 million. The restructuring of the fees is contingent on the racinos reinvesting the money they save in marketing, capital improvements and debt reduction, and this spending must be above what they already spend.

[audio:|titles=Dover Downs president and CEO Ed Sutor outlines what the Delaware Gaming Competitiveness Act means for his casino.]

Dover Downs president and CEO Ed Sutor said passage of the measure couldn’t come at a better time for his facility, which he said is already seeing reduced slots revenue since the Maryland Live! casino at the Arundel Mills mall opened earlier this month.

“We’re happy,” said Sutor. “The industry [in Delaware] is in distress from all the additional competition. This will go a long way to help us be more competitive.”

Sutor said the additional money available to Dover Downs will allow them to pursue projects they have had to leave on the shelf in recent years, including an Asian-themed restaurant.

Sen. Bonini wound up voting “yes” for the bill despite co-sponsoring the failed amendment that would have essentially gutted the measure. He called the vote one of the toughest votes he’s had to make in his legislative career.

“I’m not happy about it,” said Bonini. “I thought the amendment Sen. Lawson and I brought was the better solution, but that amendment failed and I just couldn’t vote to lay people off.”

Delaware’s Secretary of Finance Tom Cook expects the additional venues for parlay betting on NFL games to be ready in time for the start of the 2012 football season. Cook believes online games and new keno venues will be up and running early in 2013.

Senate approves FY 2013 operating budget

The Fiscal Year 2013 operating budget cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday. The state Senate passed the budget bill 17-4.

There was little debate over the $3.58 billion FY13 budget, which is 2.2 percent or $78.2 million larger than the state’s FY12 budget.

State Senator Harris Mc Dowell (D-North Wilmington) who chaired the budget writing Joint Finance Committee, is pleased with the contents of the final spending plan. He’s also pleased with the process that delivered it.

“It feels good. It’s not just two days ahead of [the June 30th] deadline. It’s that we’ve had the budget published and online for anyone who wanted to red it for eight days,” said Sen. Mc Dowell.

Senate President Pro Temp Anthony DeLuca (D-Varlano) believes that process help make for easy passage of the budget bill in the Senate.

“A lot of work went into that budget. It’s been vetted. We got it printed as early as we could print it. We filed it as early as we could file it and gave everyone a good week to look at it,” said Sen. DeLuca. “You saw the results of that [Wednesday]. The budget passed. We had very few comments and its on its way to the House.”

State Sen. Colin Bonini (R-South Dover) was one of the four votes against the budget. He has consistently voted against the final operating budget over the years and said his rationale for doing so has not changed.

"We have to have a fundamental re-evaluation of what the role of state government is in peoples' lives here in Delaware because the current spending is unsustainable. It just is," said Bonini, who put Medicaid spending is at the top the list of his concerns. He characterized Delaware's Medicaid program as one of the "most generous in country" and said the state needs to "cover less people."

The state of Delaware’s budget bill now heads to the state House of Representatives. The bill must be approved by and signed by the governor by the end of the legislative session on Saturday.

Payday loans legislation signed by Gov. Markell

Legislation limiting payday loans in Delaware is now law. Gov. Jack Markell (D) signed House Bill 289 Wednesday at Legislative Hall.

Payday loan bill becomes law

Excerpts from bill signing ceremony for HB289 - limiting payday loans.

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The measure aims to keep consumers who use the small, short-term loans – meant to be a bridge to their next paycheck - from getting caught in what critics of the loans call a “cycle of debt.” The loans often come with high interest rates and are frequently rolled over, accumulating additional fees.

During his tenure as state treasurer, Markell said he saw the kind of problems payday loans can create.

“I did meet a number of people [as state treasurer] who absolutely got buried by some of the incredibly high interest loans and it was just really difficult for them to dig themselves out from a really challenging situation,” said Markell.

The new law limits borrowers to no more than five loans of $1,000 or less in a 12-month period. It also creates a database to track the number of payday loans a person has, allowing lenders to determine if a potential borrower already has an outstanding payday loan. The law also calls for the state Banking Commissioner to use the data gathered to produce a report on payday loans in Delaware to help determine if additional regulation is necessary.

The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington South) said the new law “will without a doubt be the most important piece of legislation that I have brought forward.”

“For some reason, this bill just hits me in the core of my heart because when somebody is taken advantage of [someone] unbeknownst to them … unbeknownst to folks who may have a 3rd grade reading level and don't understand what they are signing, who just need to pay the electric bill ... I just couldn't sit by anymore,” said Keeley.

Currently, 13 states prohibit payday loans altogether. Twenty-one states prohibit payday loan rollovers. Thirteen states have databases to track payday loans.