HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania law that took effect in recent days has triggered a pregame tussle between a lawmaker and the state police over whether certain organizations can legally operate small betting pools on the Super Bowl.
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, wants to overturn the call by state police that the betting pools remain illegal under federal law, arguing that the legislation signed into law in November was fashioned to get around a sports betting prohibition in the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.
She wrote in a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett that the state police were ignoring the new law, and “equally disappointing is that the PSP decided to wait until after the legislation was enacted to raise any concerns about provisions in the law.”
The amendments to the state’s small games of chance law allow pool betting on “the outcome of an event or series of events” involving people or animals, but note that any sports pools must comply with the federal statute.
State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said troopers will issue citations when they run across the pools but said they were not a major enforcement priority. He said participants in such pools are subject to an administrative fine that can range from $50 to $2,000.
Just one person has been cited in Pennsylvania over the past three years, he said.
“As far as we’re concerned, there’s no new enforcement plan and there’s no change to our policy,” Noonan said Wednesday. “We don’t think that law changed this particular type of pool, if it’s based on a sporting event.”
The law, which passed overwhelmingly in both chambers of the Legislature, said licensed volunteer clubs can run sports betting pools for up to 100 people if bets are capped at $20 and all proceeds go toward prizes.
The dispute has caused an organization that represents such charitable organizations to advise its members not to conduct Super Bowl betting pools, which are offered as a way to attract business.
“At this point it’s four days to the Super Bowl, and the state police are saying we’re now going to cite because this is illegal,” said Tom Helsel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Association of Nationally Chartered Organizations. “Everybody’s rushing to get an opinion as to whether it is or it isn’t.”
Noonan said the key is the sports element. A pool about some other issue, such as the number of commercials, is permissible.
Boscola aide Steve DeFrank said the law was patterned after legislation that has allowed sports betting pools in two other states, laws he said have not been challenged.
“We don’t want to see people cited,” DeFrank said. “We don’t want to tell people, ‘you can go ahead and do this,’ and have the state police cite them.”
Noonan said other states may be in violation of federal law, and allowed that different lawyers may disagree with the government’s attorneys about the legality of the Pennsylvania law.
“It’s not like we’re going to be hunting down every pool in Pennsylvania, or anything like that, or making this a priority,” Noonan said. “But if you ask me if that’s against the law, yes, it is.”
That also applies to NCAA bracket pools tied to the men’s college basketball tournament in March, he said.