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'Wheeling Island Survival Act' would help W.Va. 'racinos'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Industry-backed legislation intended to help West Virginia racetrack-casinos hard hit by competition from new casinos in three border states was introduced in the state Senate on Wednesday (SB455).

West Virginia Racing Association President John Cavacini stopped short of saying the bill is necessary for the survival of the four "racinos," but said he considers it "the Wheeling Island Survival Act."

Squeezed by competition from two Pittsburgh-area casinos to the east and by casinos in Columbus and Cleveland to the west, management of Wheeling Island announced this week it is considering eliminating table games at the casino as a cost-cutting measure.

Before the openings of the competing casinos, table games at Wheeling Island were bringing in about $2.5 million a month, Cavacini noted. Now the casino's table games revenue runs about $600,000 to $700,000 each month.

In January, Wheeling Island's table games revenue fell to $585,064, according to state Lottery Commission reports.

Cavacini said the bill would not only preserve a key source of state Lottery revenue for the long term, but also immediately help 100 to 150 Wheeling Island employees keep their jobs.

As drafted, the bill would cut the annual table games licensing fee for each casino from $2.5 million to $1 million and reduce the state tax on casinos' table game receipts from 35 percent to 25 percent.

The bill also would take $6 million annually out of the more than $100 million a year the Lottery pays into purses and breeders' funds for thoroughbred and greyhound breeders and owners, so that the $10 million of funding that goes to the Division of Senior Services for in-home care programs remains intact.

It also would allow tracks to cut live racing days to 150 days a year, and would put restrictions on how horsemen's benevolent associations at the two horse tracks can spend their portions of purse funds.

Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, the lead sponsor of the bill, said he believes there is interest in the Legislature to assure that the casinos continue to provide a major source of state revenue.

"When you look at the competition across the state borders and what's happening to the bottom line," he said, "we're looking at giving them the opportunity to reassess their business plans by reducing the license fees and taxes."

Green said he expects thoroughbred and greyhound owners and breeders to oppose the bill, since they would see cuts to purse and breeders funds, but said the Legislature has to deal with the ongoing reality of declining revenue from the racetrack casinos.

"Ultimately," he said, "the bill is going to be at the forefront of what we'll have to do over the next few years."

State Lottery Director John Musgrave was traveling Wednesday and not available for comment.

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


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