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Statehouse beat: Casino bills full of drama

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Continuing a look at issues of interest in the final week of the 2013 legislative session:

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Gambling: Not entirely surprising that a bill to cut the 2013 table games licensing fee for the four racetrack casinos from $2.5 million to $1.5 million (SB615) appears dead in the House of Delegates.

Opposition from Senate Republicans was adamant and unanimous. All nine Republicans voted against it in the 23-10 passage vote in the Senate, and Republicans account for 46 of 100 seats in the House.

The bill was primarily intended to aid Wheeling Island racetrack casino, hard hit by competitors in metro Pittsburgh and Columbus, and the House is effectively calling Wheeling Island's bluff that management will surrender the casino's table games license June 30 if the tax cut is not enacted.

Meanwhile, given that the state's five existing casinos are being hurt to varying degrees from competition in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, the bill to add a sixth casino at a rural resort development located at the struggling Highlands Golf Course, near Franklin in Pendleton County, seems a wild long shot (SB492).

Frankly, it might not have made it as far as it has without having super-lobbyist Nick Casey representing LGI Land, the Texas company that bought the golf resort at a bankruptcy auction in 2007.

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One important piece of legislation regarding the state's casino industry could be the bill to study problems facing the gaming industry (SB656).

One disadvantage that immediately comes to mind: The state's racetrack casinos pay a 7 percent tax on video slots revenues to subsidize live racing at the tracks -- a tax the stand-alone casinos in the neighboring states don't pay.

Speaking of, Sam Burdette, president of the state Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association, stopped by to make the novel suggestion that the state racetrack casinos could counter the out-of-state competition by promoting, rather than marginalizing, live racing at the tracks.

Burdette, who last year got $60,458 from the state greyhound breeders' fund, noted that the local racetrack casino, Mardi Gras, has long since closed off its indoor grandstand for other uses, allowing only diners at one of the casino's restaurants a place to bet on the greyhounds in an indoor setting.

I suggested that was probably a marketing decision on the casino's part, not an intentional effort to marginalize greyhound racing, noting that racetrack video slots were legalized in the early 1990s as a way to keep the racetracks from going under.

One could argue the customers have spoken with their gambling dollars, which they obviously prefer to spend on video slots and table games rather than live racing.

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Road Fund financing: The 2013 House of Delegates may not be remembered for the quality of legislation enacted, but it certainly has been top-notch when it comes to pandering to segments of voters, first with a 94-4 vote to nullify municipal gun ordinances (HB2760), and more recently with a 97-1 vote to repeal tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike when the turnpike's bonds are paid off in 2020.

Nevermind that this Legislature cannot compel action by future legislatures, so even if the bill was enacted this year, future legislatures would get at least seven opportunities to repeal the law. Also nevermind that the proposal blows a $60 million a year hole in the already cash-strapped state Road Fund.

If the bill doesn't die in the Senate, a gubernatorial veto seems certain.

Instead of giving Mercer County residents false hopes about someday being able to drive to Charleston toll free (Isn't it interesting how complaints about the tolls diminish the farther north you go on the Turnpike?), the Legislature should be concerned that the Division of Highways is about $1 billion a year short of what is needed to complete and maintain the state road system.

Because of high-mileage vehicles, the state gas tax raises only about $400 million a year, and nobody's eager to increase the state's already comparatively high tax rate. Meanwhile, a bill that passed the Senate to study an alternative of taxing vehicles based on the miles traveled (SB354) faces an uphill battle in the House.

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Finally, I've had several inquiries, the latest from former Sen. Jim Humphreys, about whether I had intentionally or inadvertently omitted Martha Walker from the list of great women in the state Senate in 1990.

To set the record straight, I would certainly not intentionally leave Martha off of any list. The reality is that she did not begin serving in the Senate until 1993.

True story: Of all the people in the Capitol, the only person Tom Searls was afraid to talk to was Walker. Seems the first time he interviewed her (she was then DHHR secretary), using his customary interrogation style, which including jabbing his pen in the direction of the interviewee to emphasize points ... she simply grabbed the pen out of his hand and kept it.

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


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