Tracks await legislation

WHEELING – Officials at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort and Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack often view each other as competitors, but they both want lower table gambling taxes.

Recently, state Sens. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling, and Jack Yost, D-Wellsburg, joined others to sponsor a bill to do just that. The legislation would reduce the annual fee West Virginia’s four racetrack casinos must pay to have table gambling from $2.5 million to $1 million, while also reducing the tax rate on table games from 35 percent to 25 percent. The bill would also cut the number of annual greyhound and thoroughbred racing days from 210 to 150.

To this point, however, Fitzsimmons admitted the bill has not gained much momentum.

“My sense is that this bill is on hold right now. There are some potential alternatives being considered, but nothing has come up yet,” Fitzsimmons said.

“We support the decision of the senators that submitted this bill for having the foresight, in the face of increased competition, to put forth legislation that will help protect jobs in our area and help us be more fiscally responsible,” said Chris Kern, general manager at Mountaineer, after initially declining to comment on the matter.

Revenue at Mountaineer fell from $55.8 million in the last three months of 2011 to $47 million during the same period in 2012. Cash flow from slot machines at the Chester-based track dropped by $5.5 million during the fourth quarter of 2012, while revenue from table gambling fell by $2.1 million.

“We are all just waiting to see what happens right now. We are still hopeful that something will get passed,” said Jim Simms, outgoing president and general manager of Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack.

The legislative session ends April 13, but Fitzsimmons said the bill must reach the Senate floor for debate by the end of March. A version of the bill must pass in both the Senate and the House of Delegates to reach Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s desk for his signature.

Simms said his company may not renew its table gambling license if the $2.5 million fee is not adjusted in some way because the Wheeling facility is on pace to run its tables at a $1 million operating loss in 2013, emphasizing the activity’s “labor intensive” nature. Fitzsimmons and Yost introduced their bill shortly thereafter, noting that Simms said the track has 105 employees whose jobs are directly tied to table gambling.

Currently, the Wheeling Island casino and the Mardi Gras West Virginia Casino & Hotel (formerly Tri-State Racetrack) near Charleston offer greyhound racing, while Mountaineer and the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle showcase thoroughbred horses.

“We have to fix the current situation, while also trying to address problems that may come up in the future. The Charles Town track is doing well, but they may eventually lose customers to Maryland,” Fitzsimmons added.

Reducing the number of annual dog and horse racing days is a general point of contention, according to West Virginia Racing Commission Executive Director Jon Amores.

“You will typically find that casino officials are on the opposite side of these issues from the breeders,” he said, noting his organization is very aware of the potential reduction in racing days from 210 to 150. “It is entirely up to the Legislature. As the regulatory body, we will enforce whatever laws they pass.”

Simms said his facility 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. Simms also called greyhound racing “a declining industry.” Amores had no response to his comment.

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