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Statehouse Beat: War on ... casinos?

By Phil Kabler, Staff writer

We hear a lot about the purported war on coal, but it occurred to me there’s a war on West Virginia casinos.

State Revenue officials last week noted that coal severance tax collections are down 11 percent compared to last year, primarily because of falling prices for coal. Meanwhile, revenues from the state’s four racetrack casinos are down 11.5 percent for the fiscal year, as competition from new casinos in Maryland and Ohio have stolen away gamblers who used to come to West Virginia.

For the just-ended 2013-14 budget year, severance taxes (which include a lot of natural gas and a bit of timber) brought in $488.68 million in state revenue. The state’s share of Lottery profits (which includes Limited Video Lottery and traditional numbers and scratch-off games) should come in at about $535 million to $540 million when the final numbers for the fiscal year are reported.

While the boom in natural gas production not only made up for slumping coal prices, but also helped severance tax collections exceed projections by 13 percent, there is no alternate source of gaming revenue to make up for the falling casino revenue. (Short of the Legislature doing something daring like legalizing sports betting...)

Meanwhile, the worst is yet to come: Hollywood Casino in Charles Town currently brings in about twice as much revenue as the other three racetrack casinos and The Greenbrier Casino combined.

Hollywood Casino’s revenues are down about 14.5 percent from last year from competition with new casinos in Maryland, and that’s before a new casino complex in downtown Baltimore opens this summer, and the death-blow, the $925 million MGM National Harbor casino complex, opens just outside of Washington, D.C., in 2016.

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Meanwhile, Moody’s revised its outlook for the U.S. gaming industry from “stable” to “negative,” citing a “weaker demand, fixed nature of expenses, and oversupply” of casinos.

It said a worrisome trend is that gaming revenues have remained flat for the past 18 months, despite improvement in the overall U.S. economy and the addition of new casinos.

It projects that state-regulated gaming revenues will decrease by 3 to 5 percent over the next 12 to 18 months.

It notes that 11 of 15 states included in the report (West Virginia wasn’t one of the 15) had revenue declines in May, compared to May 2013. Unfortunately, the states that saw growth are the ones stealing business from West Virginia: Ohio (up 34 percent), Maryland (up 8.9 percent), and Pennsylvania (up 0.4 percent).

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In another ominous harbinger, the Delaware General Assembly last week approved a $10 million bailout for the state’s three racetrack casinos, also hard-hit by competition in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

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The secretary of state’s office is in the process of updating the 2014 candidate list on its website after Mountain Party Chairwoman Charlotte Pritt complained that the names and addresses of four Mountain Party legislative candidates appointed by the party to fill ballot vacancies are not included.

(That includes Jesse Johnson, who’s running against Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, and Republican Tom Takubo in Kanawha’s 17th Senatorial District.)

Pritt said the omission was brought to her attention by a representative of State Public Workers Union UE 170, who was using the website to find addresses to mail out candidate questionnaires.

Since candidate questionnaires are used to make endorsements, Pritt said the failure to list the Mountain Party candidates puts them at an undue disadvantage.

“I don’t want this to blow up in Natalie’s face in the campaign, but this is absolutely ridiculous,” said Pritt, referring to Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate Natalie Tennant.

Secretary of state spokesman Jake Glance said the candidate list, which had not been revised since the May primary election, is being updated to show all primary winners, all candidates nominated at party conventions and all candidates appointed to fill ballot vacancies.

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To the reader who wondered why Morgantown businessman David Rees still has governor-issued state license plate No. 132 while serving a one-year term in federal prison for tax evasion, Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman advises that as of July 1, plate 132 is unassigned.

(Plates No. 1 to 2000, assigned by the governor, renew July 1 like all other vanity plates.)

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Finally, following last week’s column regarding delays in the state paying income tax refunds, I got a letter from the Tax Department’s Taxpayer Services Division indicating I had made an error on my return. (Looks like I failed to carry over the total taxes paid from the front of the form to the back.)

Meanwhile, despite all the time, effort and postage on the Tax Department’s part to notify me of my omission, as of Thursday, I still had no refund.

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


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