Passage of casino bill not a sure thing

WHEELING – Delegate Erikka Storch knows how important Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack is to the local economy, but she also knows many of her fellow Republican lawmakers oppose the fundamental concept of gambling.

So as the House of Delegates considers a bill passed over from the state Senate this week that would lower the annual table gambling fee the state’s four racetracks pay from $2.5 million to $1.5 million, Storch, R-Ohio, said the legislation’s passage is not a sure thing.

“It does have some bipartisan support,” Storch said. “But there are many people, especially on my side of the aisle, who just oppose the whole idea of gambling.”

Last year, Mountain State voters elected 46 Republicans to the 100-member House of Delegates, which is the largest number of GOP members in many years. Jim Simms, outgoing president and general manager of the Wheeling track had repeatedly said the facility may not renew its table gambling license in July if legislators do not lower the fee. He also said he hopes the issue does not become a partisan matter.

However, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he would like to see financial figures from the Wheeling track before the body considers the bill.

“Even if they’re able to justify and show us in their records and their books, again, there are many, many companies in different areas – the coal companies, the small mom-and-pop shops, the gas stations – they’ve all been struggling under the economic climate that we’re in,” Armstead said.

However, Storch recognizes the situation the Wheeling facility faces, as increased competition from new casinos in both Ohio and Pennsylvania continue to take business from the Island track.

“Obviously, for our area, the track is a vital part of our economy. I support trying to help our track,” she said. “It would be very noticeable if they lost those table games employees.”

The proposed legislation would lower the annual fee not just for the Wheeling track, but also for Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort in Chester, the Mardi Gras West Virginia Casino & Hotel near Charleston and the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in the state’s Eastern Panhandle.

The Senate passed the legislation by a count of 23-10. Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, have said they believe the Wheeling track will eliminate its table games this year if the current $2.5 million fee is not lowered, which could leave 105 workers without jobs.

The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee as well as the Finance Committee, on which Storch sits. She said she will consider the legislation once it reaches the committee.

Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, called the Senate bill a “Band-Aid” designed to provide “temporary relief.”

“Wheeling Island is in the eye of the storm. They and Mountaineer are getting beat up,” he said. “We have employees at these tracks that need to be taken care of.

“What people need to understand is that not all of these tracks are bringing in huge money. And 35 percent of what they get comes right off the top to go to the state,” he added regarding the tax the tracks pay on table gambling.

West Virginia Lottery Commission records show that not all tracks are pulling in similar dollar amounts. Wheeling Island generated about $5.3 million worth of revenue from table gambling from July 1 through the end of February. During the same time period, the Charles Town track saw about $104.7 million from table gambling – nearly 20 times as much as the Wheeling facility.

Swartzmiller also said he favors the study bill approved in the Senate that, in Kessler’s words, would evaluate the “distribution of all the gaming monies we have in the state – who is getting what, when, where and why.”

Following state law, the West Virginia Lottery Commission directed at least $92 million worth of subsidies to greyhound and thoroughbred breeders during fiscal 2012, according to commission spokesman Randy Burnside.

The legislative session ends April 13. Bills must pass in both the Senate and House before they can be signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

“It is too early to say if this will come to a vote,” Swartzmiller said. “It is definitely a bill we will be keeping our eyes on.”