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Statehouse Beat: Is $10,000 too much to cash?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Throughout the evolution of the state Lottery Commission from its humble origins overseeing the distribution of scratch-off tickets into a major state agency housed in its own office tower, and regulating a veritable gambling empire, including five full-fledged casinos and nearly 7,500 video slot machines in bars and clubs around the state, one thing had never changed -- until last week.

Over the years, the commission has been strictly focused on the business side of the industry, looking at maximizing revenue figures for the state, and using euphemisms such as "gaming," instead of gambling, and "video lottery machines" instead of slot machines, etc.

The commission has not devoted much time or attention to any negative societal aspects of gambling. The last time it had even been an issue was back in 2008, when the Legislature moved control of the state contract to operate the Problem Gamblers' Helpline from the Lottery to the Department of Health and Human Resources, over concerns including the commission's requirement that the state lottery logo appear in all help-line advertising.

So it was somewhat startling when Commissioner Dave Lemmon raised objections last week to a commission proposal to raise the limit on personal checks that casinos may cash from the current $200 maximum to $10,000.

(Personally, the only time I've written a check that big was the down payment on my condo, and my hand was shaking the whole time.)

Lemmon pointed out that in his previous career as State Police superintendent, he frequently dealt with incidents that resulted when husbands had gambled away their paychecks in back-room poker games that predated the legalization of gambling.

Lemmon succeeded in getting the matter postponed for a month. Whether the commission ultimately approves the $10,000 maximum, or comes up with some lower limit, it was refreshing to hear a Lottery commissioner actually raise the issue of the negative aspects of state-sanctioned gambling.

***

Speaking of, as we've discussed before, the daily operations of the state rely on the use of a series of legal fictions, generally because no one wants to enforce the laws on the books, or change the laws to conform with reality.

Case in point: Liquor by the drink is illegal in West Virginia, except for members of private clubs. However, the state operates under the legal fiction that everything from the Red Carpet Lounge to your neighborhood Applebee's is a private club, and you are magically granted club membership by setting foot in the door.

The Lottery Commission affirmed a new legal fiction last week in declaring that a bus ride and $20 buffet constitutes an "event" under the state law intended to limit access to The Greenbrier casino to registered overnight guests or persons attending conferences, conventions or other major events at the hotel.

(If there was any doubt that the commission was going to do anything other than what The Greenbrier sought, it was erased when lobbyist and state Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio appeared to speak on behalf of the resort management.)

Naturally, having the Lottery Commission create a legal fiction to get around the law is much easier than going back to try the Legislature to amend the law to ease restrictions on access to the casino -- restrictions that Greenbrier officials readily agreed to when the historic resort gambling act was originally passed.

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After years of resisting modernization, the Senate continues to go high-tech, with the latest additions being closed-circuit TV systems in the Finance and Judiciary committee rooms.

Each system includes large wide-screen monitors, which hang from ceilings of the committee rooms, with one screen facing the committee members, and one screen facing the public seating in each room.

The systems also include controls, and a smaller monitor, at the podiums in each committee room.

Each system, including installation and wiring, cost $12,349 and were purchased from Electronic Specialty Co. of Dunbar, according to Senate assistant clerk Lee Cassis.

He said they ultimately should save on printing costs, since committee staffs won't have to make printed copies of power-point presentations for each member.

(In addition to being able to view the presentations on the TV monitors, senators will be able to call up the reports on the iPads the Senate purchased for the members last year, he said.)

Cassis said the monitors can also be used for two-way closed-circuit broadcasts, so that experts can appear before the committees without having to travel to Charleston.

***

Finally, even though I should know better, I can never resist referencing the number of state holidays (14 this year, four in November alone), knowing it will get a rise out of state employees.

Why, I'm not sure. It's not a slight on the employees that they get so many paid holidays. That occurred over the years as a way for Legislatures and governors to curry favor with state employees, and to placate them in some years in lieu of pay raises.

The only reason I can think why state employees would get so worked up is that they're concerned there could be some effort to scale back the holidays to a more reasonable number. However, in all these years, the Legislature has only taken back one holiday -- Lincoln's Birthday in 2005 -- and that wasn't even a true take-back, since they swapped it for a new official holiday on the day after Thanksgiving.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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