W.Va. table games legislation in jeopardy

WHEELING – The House of Delegates Judiciary Committee removed the bill to reduce annual table gambling fees by $1 million from its agenda Friday, but local legislators maintain hope it still can be considered.

“Nothing dies until next Saturday,” said Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, responding to published reports about the bill being dead. “We will have to wait to the first of the week to get a new assessment.

“I obviously have no control over what the House does. But in my years of doing this, I have learned to never say never,” he added.

Bills must be approved in both the Senate and House before the end of the day on April 13 so that they can be signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The Senate passed the legislation by a vote of 23-10, with one member failing to cast a vote, earlier this week before sending it to the House for consideration.

Kessler and Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, have said they believe Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack will eliminate its table games this year if the current $2.5 million fee is not lowered to $1.5 million, which could leave 105 workers without jobs.

“Both Democrats and Republicans like jobs,” said Jim Simms, outgoing president and general manager of the Wheeling track, upon learning of the Friday developments. “We are hopeful the bill will be up for discussion on Monday.”

Last year, Mountain State voters elected 46 Republicans to the 100-member House of Delegates – the largest number of GOP members in many years. House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he would like to see financial figures from the Wheeling track before the body considers the bill. Several other Republicans have clarified their positions as opposing the overall concept of gambling.

In its current form, the bill – originally introduced by Kessler before undergoing a series of amendments in the Senate – would lower the annual table gambling fees for the Wheeling track, as well as Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort in Chester, the Mardi Gras West Virginia Casino & Hotel near Charleston and the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in the state’s Eastern Panhandle.

Because the bill affects matters involving both the Judiciary Committee and the Finance Committee, it must pass both of these House committees before being considered by the full body. Friday, Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, dropped the bill from the committee agenda amid legislators’ questions over whether the Wheeling track really needs the fee reduction.

Del. Mike Ferro, D-Marshall, sits on the Judiciary Committee.

“They took it off the agenda. It will be the decision of the chairman if it gets on the agenda,” Ferro said. “I have no knowledge of it being dead.”

Efforts to reach Miley for comment were unsuccessful.

Ferro said he would consider supporting the legislation if it comes back before the committee, noting he believes the “casinos in the Northern Panhandle need a break.”

“They are getting crushed by Pennsylvania and Ohio,” he added.

West Virginia Lottery Commission records show that some tracks are fairing better than others. The Wheeling Island facility generated about $5.3 million worth of revenue from table gambling from July 1 through the end of February. During the same time period, the Charles Town track saw about $104.7 million from table gambling – nearly 20 times as much.

Simms pointed to the large amount of tax revenue the Wheeling track pays to the state, Ohio County and the city of Wheeling.

“Our losses are their losses,” he said. “This is not just our business. We are partners with the state of West Virginia.”