Bill would lower gambling fees

WHEELING – West Virginia may reduce tax rates on blackjack, poker, craps and other table games from 35 percent to 25 percent – and the annual casino license fee could drop from $2.5 million to $1 million – pending action by the state Senate.

Sens. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling, and Jack Yost, D-Wellsburg, are among the sponsors of the bill introduced Wednesday, largely in response to concerns expressed by Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack President and General Manager Jim Simms.

Simms said there are now 105 track employees whose jobs are directly connected to table gambling. He is yielding his post at the end of this month to accept an opportunity to open a new casino near Cincinnati, but he said the Wheeling Island facility may not renew its table gambling license in July if the $2.5 million annual license fee remains in place.

“We cannot play roulette with these jobs,” said Fitzsimmons. “The last thing our area needs is to lose more jobs.”

Simms said that as well as the $2.5 million annual fee, the Wheeling casino is on pace to operate table gambling at a $1 million loss this year.

“We are very pleased that there is action being taken in the Legislature to address our situation. We believe these measures, if passed, would be of significant assistance to our business at Wheeling Island,” Simms said Wednesday upon learning of the bill’s introduction. “We will watch the situation closely.”

Since the Wheeling facility and the state’s three other racetracks – Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in Chester, the Mardi Gras West Virginia Casino & Hotel (formerly Tri-State Racetrack) near Charleston and the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in the Eastern Panhandle – started rolling dice in late 2007, both Ohio and Pennsylvania have established slot machines and table gambling.

The recent opening of the Hollywood Casino Columbus has been particularly damaging to Wheeling Island, as much of the facility’s customer base over the past few years has come from central Ohio.

“Our tracks are getting crushed by out-of-state competition that did not even exist when we started table gaming. We have to continue to support our businesses,” Fitzsimmons said.

Lesley Campbell, spokeswoman for Mountaineer, said her company had no comment on the issues raised by Simms.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale, said he wants to make sure the $10 million collected by each of the four racetracks paying the $2.5 million annual fee continues in full as a benefit to senior citizen health care.

The proposed bill would offset the $6 million loss caused by reducing the fee from $2.5 million to $1 million for each of the four tracks. It would accomplish this by diverting $6 million worth of slot machine revenue, which under current law would go to greyhound and thoroughbred breeders for winning races.

Based on the state’s budget, lowering the tax on table games from 35 percent to 25 percent could cost West Virginia about $7.8 million. However, Fitzsimmons said this estimate does not account for the severity of the problems at Wheeling Island.

“The revenue lost from lowering the tax rate will be made up for by allowing the casino to continue to exist,” he said.

The bill would also reduce the minimum number of days for greyhound or thoroughbred racing at the four tracks from 200 to 150 per year. Simms said Wheeling has permission from the West Virginia Racing Commission to only hold 107 greyhound races per week this year, which is down from 115 per week in 2012.

Yost could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Other sponsors of the bill include Sens. Larry Edgell, D-New Martinsville; Daniel Hall, D-Bolt; and Mike Green, D-Raleigh.