By Mannix Porterfield
Over the howls of Republicans, the Senate agreed Wednesday to trim the annual license fee of West Virginia’s four racetrack casinos by $1 million and give the Legislature a full year to look at gambling’s diminishing revenues.
“This is a short term solution to long-range problem,” Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said as he characterized the issue.
Of the four tracks at stake, Wheeling Island is in the worst condition, under mounting pressure from new gaming facilities in Ohio. The other three are at Charles Town, Mountaineer in Chester, and Mardi Gras in Cross Lanes.
If the four cannot meet the $2.5 million license, set in code, Prezioso warned, in-home medical services provided by the state to seniors definitely would suffer.
In the 23-10 vote, with Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier absent, 10 votes were cast against — Sens. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; Donna Boley, R-Pleasants; Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson; Bill Cole, R-Mercer; Doug Facemire, D-Braxton; Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam; Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell; David Nohe, R-Wood; Dave Sypolt, R-Preston; and Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley.
Not only is Ohio putting the squeeze on Wheeling Island, Prezioso said, but tracks also are under pressure from rivals in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
“That has taken a tremendous toll, just if you look at the minimum number of people that visit those type of venues,” he said.
Wheeling Island is “in tremendous jeopardy” of not being able to come up with the $2.5 million fee, he said.
“Our short-term problem is, we can’t afford to take any chances of one of the casinos not paying the entry fee,” Prezioso said.
Making up the difference in the fee cut would be a shift of $4 million from the lottery commission’s administrative fees into the Bureau of Senior Services.
When Prezioso successfully amended the bill a day earlier, Carmichael blasted the idea of cutting the casinos a break, while other businesses aren’t accorded the same treatment.
“We haven’t cut a tax for anybody else in this state,” he said before an amendment was adopted.
“We can’t cut a tax for manufacturing, corporate net income for any other business in West Virginia. Yet, we can come in here for gambling, for table games, we can reduce their fees. Why don’t we look at doing something like that for everybody else?”
Preizoso said all areas of West Virginia would be affected if the programs for seniors were abbreviated, warning that the inability of the tracks to stay afloat would have “a domino effect” across the state.
Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, attacked the legislation just before the floor vote, saying even though Wheeling suffered losses, video lottery is faring well at all four casinos.
Hall questioned the wisdom of the bill, wondering if it would accomplish its intended goal.
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