Money is going to the dogs

WHEELING – West Virginia gamblers and taxpayers subsidized greyhound and thoroughbred breeders with at least $92 million during fiscal year 2012, according to the state Lottery Commission.

“Some legislators are more interested in protecting the interests of horse and dog owners than they are in protecting West Virginia workers,” said Jim Simms, outgoing president and general manager of Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, who has accepted another job but will maintain oversight of the track until a replacement is named.

“Maybe it is time to take a hard look at the tens of millions of dollars that are flowing to out-of-state breeders – and instead, focus on keeping jobs in West Virginia,” he added.

Simms insists his company may not renew its table gambling license in July if the $2.5 million annual fee is not reduced because the Wheeling facility is on pace to run its tables at a $1 million operating loss in 2013. He said the track has 105 employees whose jobs are directly tied to table gambling.

West Virginia Senate Bill 615 – introduced by Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale – would reduce the annual table gambling fee for all Mountain State casinos to $1.5 million.

The $2.5 million annual fee that each of the four tracks currently pays provides $10 million for senior citizen services throughout West Virginia. Kessler’s original bill – which would have reduced the amount collected from the fees to $7 million – would have covered the gap by diverting $3 million from the purse funds that go to thoroughbred and greyhound breeders.

However, an amendment by Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Shenandoah Junction, now means the bill will replace the lost senior citizen funding by taking it from subsidies to help purchase new slot machines instead of the breeders’ funds.

Currently, tracks can receive reimbursements from the state for the purchase of new slot machines in the amount of $1 for every $2 worth of machines.

This amended bill would reduce this reimbursement to 50 cents for every $2 worth of slot machines, making new machines more expensive for Wheeling Island and other tracks.

“This will not help us in any way. It is net neutral to us,” said Simms. “As this bill now stands, in simple terms, gaming is now subsidizing racing in West Virginia. That is a fact.”

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

Some estimate the Lottery Commission gave as much as $106 million to greyhound and thoroughbred breeders in fiscal 2012, but spokesman Randy Burnside confirmed the $92 million figure, broken down as follows:

$9.1 million to the Thoroughbred Breeder Development Fund;

$5.9 million to the Greyhound Breeder Development Fund;

$56.9 million to purse funds for thoroughbreds; and

$20.1 million to purse funds for greyhounds.

Money for greyhounds and thoroughbreds is drawn from tax proceeds on the slot machines and table games at all four tracks.

The funding would not exist if gamblers did not play slots, poker, blackjack, roulette or other games.

According to the West Virginia Racing Association, the amount distributed from the breeders’ funds is equal to what is paid to the breeders through the purse funds.

This amount depends upon how well a particular animal performs in a certain race. For example, a greyhound breeder who wins $1,000 in a race at Wheeling Island would also receive an additional $1,000 through the Greyhound Fund.

Records show some individual breeders collected amounts in excess of $400,000 in fiscal year 2012.

These amounts are somewhat down from fiscal year 2007, when one breeder got $706,571.

Lynette Maselli, Kessler’s spokeswoman, said there was no movement on SB 615 Monday, but said it could still make it out of the Senate by Wednesday.

The legislative session ends April 13, but bills must be out of their chambers of origin by Wednesday.

A version of the bill must pass in both the Senate and the House of Delegates by the end of the session to reach Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s desk for his signature.