Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a tax increase on slot games provided for gamblers in Pennsylvania casinos. The tax will impact the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, which is frequented by Lehigh students and community members alike.
Under the current law, the Sands Casino is not required to pay taxes on the money it gives away in vouchers or promotional-play cards. These items are given to customers as a way to promote the casino. George Mease, a valet supervisor, has been working at Sands since it opened in May 2009. The voucher system has been used at the casino since its opening, Mease said.
“Everybody that uses the slots, uses the vouchers,” Mease said. “They have to.”
According to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, the Sands has over 3,000 slot machines and, at $288 million, the second highest gross terminal income in the state. The new 8 percent tax would target those vouchers, and the Sands would pay an additional $12 million in taxes annually.
Before this tax, Pennsylvania taxed casinos at a higher rate than other states, said Alicia Karner, the director of community and economic development for Bethlehem.
“Pennsylvania taxes casinos more than any other state in the nation, and so what that means is in no other place do they operate where they pay as many cents on the dollar in tax as they do here in PA,” Karner said. “I had heard that (TomWolf) had announced a new tax, what I haven’t seen is an itemization of all these tax increases where would all of it go. If you’re paying more to the government, that generally means you’re giving less to those around you.”
J. William Reynolds, the Bethlehem City Council president, said he is aware of the governor’s proposal and the concerns surrounding it.
“I think I’m like a lot of people that have concerns about the effects it would have on the Sands,” Reynolds said.
“It definitely helped,” Mease said. “Before the casino came in, the South Side was basically nonexistent. Now you have the casino, you have the event center, you have Steel Stacks.”
Reynolds said the casino has a positive relationship with the city of Bethlehem.
“If you look at the fact that the city’s budget every year is about $71 million, and the money we get from the Sands is about $10 million every year, so one out of every seven dollars that the city spends is money that comes from the Sands,” Reynolds said.
Since it opened seven years ago, the Sands has made a large impact on the community, said Carolina Hernandez, the director of the Community Service Office at Lehigh.
The Sands works with Donegan Elementary School to provide breakfast for the kids and encourages employees to read with the kids, Mease said. They also help to clean up the South Side and provide toiletry kits for residents in the Lehigh Valley.
According to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, the Sands gave $901,825 in charitable donations in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
“They do some great work in the community, I’ll be honest,” Hernandez said. “There’s always two sides to everything. Overall, I think they do some good stuff and I think they’ve also impacted our community in some ways that aren’t the best. Unfortunately, I think any casino in the community will provide avenues for community members that may have some gambling addictions, to find other forms to engage in what would be self-destructive behavior.”
While members of the Bethlehem community balance the pros and cons of the casino, some members of the Lehigh community examine whether the casino has had a positive effect on students.
“I think it creates more harm than it does good,” said Tony Ge, ’16, who has been to the casino. “I understand why people gamble, it’s like a huge rush, and you feel it every time you gamble and it’s addicting. Some people just take it to far and you can just kinda see it on their faces.”
According to the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment at Lehigh from Spring 2015, only 2 percent of Lehigh students, both graduate and undergraduate, reported gambling within the past 12 months. Of those students, 0.1 percent reported that gambling affected their academic performance, which was defined as: receiving a lower grade on an exam or an important project; receiving a lower grade in a course; receiving an incomplete or dropping a course; or experiencing a significant disruption in thesis, dissertation, research or practicum work.
Although Ge has only been twice, he believes there are some Lehigh students who go to the Sands every week or every other week. He also said students go to the casino for food, drinks and the special event center, which hosts concerts and other events.
“Honestly, I have not seen it impact our students, but I also recognize that my scope of interaction with students is also kind of limited,” Hernandez said. “I have not seen it be as big an impact as what I thought it could potentially have been.”