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Gambling bills highlight of 'crossover' day in Senate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gambling bills predominated the Senate floor session Wednesday, with four of 31 bills passed dealing with the topic -- including a controversial measure to lower the 2013 table games license fee for the four racetrack casinos from $2.5 million to $1.5 million (HB615) advancing on a 23-10 vote.

The bill is primarily intended to assure that management of the Wheeling Island casino -- the hardest hit by competition from new casinos in Pennsylvania and Ohio -- will not surrender the casino's table-game license on June 30.

However, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, argued that Wheeling Island officials had not made a convincing case that the casino is in dire straits.

He said Wheeling Island lobbyists provided figures showing that table games are losing money at the casino -- "There's no dispute on that fact," Hall said -- but he also said they were not forthcoming in providing revenue figures for video slot machines.

Total video lottery revenue for the four racetrack-casinos in fiscal 2012 was $764 million, Hall noted, or nearly 10 times as much as table games produced at the four casinos.

"They didn't make the sale to me on that," said Hall, who noted that Wheeling Island and the other racetrack-casinos are owned by companies that operate multiple casino locations in several states.

"These are billion-dollar operations, these companies," he said.

Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, stressed that the bill is a stopgap measure to allow Wheeling Island to renew its table games license for another year, while giving the Legislature time to study ways to deal with competition from out-of-state casinos.

"Basically, what we're trying to do here is buy some time, and protect our in-home senior programs, and make sure they're fully funded," he said.

The $2.5 million licensing fees from the four racetrack-casinos go to the Bureau of Senior Services to fund in-home care programs.

Originally, the bill took money from Lottery thoroughbred and greyhound purse funds to assure the full $10 million of funding for in-home care services. In Senate Judiciary, Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, amended the bill to take the money out of a Lottery matching fund that the racetrack-casinos use to replace and upgrade slot machines.

In an 11th-hour compromise, Senate Finance members again changed the bill to take $4 million out of Lottery reserve funds to make up the one-time cut in the license fees.

The bill passed 23-10, with Sens. Blair, Boley, Carmichael, Cole, Facemire, Mike Hall, Jenkins, Nohe, Sypolt and Unger voting no.

Other gaming bills that passed the Senate on Wednesday would:

• Call for a committee to study threats from competing casinos and come up with recommendations for ways to bolster the state's gaming industry (SB656). It passed 33-1, with Carmichael opposing.

• Create a sixth casino gaming license for a "rural resort community," intended for a proposed development outside of Franklin in Pendleton County (SB492). It passed 26-8.

• Eliminate archaic technical requirements for slot machines at the racetracks (SB478). The bill also would allow employees of The Greenbrier resort to play slots at the hotel's $80 million casino.

The bills now go to the House of Delegates.

Wednesday was "crossover day," the last day this session for the Senate to act on Senate bills.

Other bills that passed the Senate would:

• Give employers four business days to issue a final paycheck for terminated employees. The Tomblin administration bill (SB355) would expand the current 72-hour requirement, described as an imposition for state businesses.

• Raise salaries for magistrates and their staff in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel, Wyoming, Barbour and Roane counties by lowering the population threshold for upper tier counties to 7,300 (SB378). Magistrates in the first four counties had their salaries cut from $57,500 to $51,125 because of population losses in those counties.

• Tax alternative motor vehicle fuels, including natural gas and propane, at rates equivalent to the state's gas tax (SB454).

Also Wednesday, a bill that would have allowed auto dealers to sell older, lower-priced vehicles "as is" without warranties (SB459) died in the Senate when it failed to advance to a passage vote.

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


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