Counties should get say in whether VGTs are permitted within them

When we’ve brought up gambling and the risks associated with it to the surrounding communities before, we’re sure some of you wondered what the big deal was — after all, the nearest casino is in the Harrisburg-Hershey region, far enough away from the Juniata Valley, right?

But, as we warned, once gambling was established, it was opening Pandora’s Box and its reach would only grow, not diminish.

At first, the worry was online gambling, especially on mobile devices anywhere in Pennsylvania, including in your own home. Now gambling’s reach has made it to an area convenience store as a license for video gaming terminals (“gaming” in this case being a friendlier-sounding word for “gambling,” not what kids do on XBox) has been granted to Rutter’s in Walker Township, Juniata County.

And, at least for now, there’s nothing you or local and county officials can do to stop it.

The store near Port Royal is the first convenience store in Pennsylvania to be granted such a license. It was chosen because it meets the definition of “truck stop” in the latest loosening of gambling restrictions in our state given its size, proximity to a major highway, the amount of diesel fuel it sells, the amount of parking spaces it has for big rigs and several other factors.

It also doesn’t hurt that Juniata is a casino-free county. The state’s casinos are allowed to block VGTs at truck stops in their host counties and have done so in Bucks, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Luzerne, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia and Washington counties.

And even though Juniata County’s store may have been the first, you can bet it won’t be the only one for long, as several other Rutter’s stores — and a few truck stops operated by other companies — have applied for licenses, too.

All the stereotypes about truck stops aside, there is documented proof that allowing gambling tends to lead to an increase in crime in that area, which could be especially problematic for this part of Juniata County that is only protected by the Pennsylvania State Police’s Lewistown barracks, whose troopers cover a geographically-broad two-county jurisdiction.

And even though most local municipalities have passed ordinances specifically preventing casinos from being built within them (including many in Juniata County), that does nothing to stop VGTs or the poorly-disguised gambling machines known as “Pennsylvania Skill” games that have popped up at many local establishments.

Some proponents may think the VGTs will bring a windfall to the area. Think again.

The gambling expansion law that makes VGTs legal says 42 percent of the gross gaming revenue generated by the devices will go to the Pennsylvania General Fund. An additional 10 percent will be directed to the Commonwealth Finance Agency, which in turn will be used to fund grants to any county in the state.

So, basically, a community needs to undertake all the risk of bringing legalized gambling to it, but doesn’t reap the financial rewards and also gets no say in whether these machines show up in the first place? It’s enough to make your head spin like the reels on an old-fashioned slot machine.

We don’t think that’s right. We think local residents should have their voices heard on whether gambling in any form is allowed in their communities and counties. So, we support the efforts of Lancaster County Republican state Sen. Scott Martin who has introduced legislation that would give counties the ability to opt out of having VGTs within them.

We would also urge Juniata County (or any other local county for that matter) to exercise the opt-out, should the privilege to do so be granted.

For those who wish to gamble, there are already plenty of ways to do that. We don’t need to force areas that don’t want gambling to host it anyway.

We hope the rest of the state legislature and the governor have the good sense to see that, too.