House removes local lottery return cutback

WHEELING – Under pressure from cities and counties faced with losing millions in annual revenue, the House of Delegates stripped a provision to cut local governments’ gambling funds from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s lottery appropriations bill before approving it by a nearly three-to-one margin Wednesday.

Even though it exempts cities and counties from the cuts, the amended legislation leaves in place reductions in appropriations to various thoroughbred and greyhound breeders’ and purse funds – but not as deep as originally proposed.

Payouts to the funds would drop by 10 percent, rather than the 15 percent in the initial bill.

The bill passed 72-25 with three delegates not voting. Among Northern Panhandle delegates, only William Roger Romine, R-Tyler, voted in favor. Randy Swartzmiller and Ronnie Jones, both D-Hancock; Phil Diserio, D-Brooke; Ryan Ferns and Erikka Storch, both R-Ohio; Michael Ferro, D-Marshall; David Evans, R-Marshall; and Dave Pethtel, D-Wetzel, all opposed the bill.

Without the cuts to cities and counties, the bill is expected to redirect $34.5 million that will help balance the state budget next year.

That amount would have been $39 million under the original bill.

The measure, House Bill 4333, now moves to the Senate, where it has been assigned to that chamber’s Finance Committee.

The local cuts would have affected every city and county in West Virginia, but particularly those where casinos are located, as they receive a larger share of gambling revenue. Officials in Wheeling, for example, predicted the city would lose about $250,000 in annual funding under the governor’s proposal.

Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie, who said previously state officials were trying “to fix their problems on the back of local government,” could not be reached for comment.

Although he’s relieved Hancock County won’t have to deal with an estimated $600,000 loss in revenue next year, County Commissioner Dan Greathouse fears the bill, if enacted, still will harm the local economy by trimming subsidies for the racing industry.

“We’ve had a lot of people move here who bought farms here. … They came in here and hired people,” Greathouse said. “I’m concerned we’re going to lose some of our horse breeders here.”

Greathouse also fears impacts to tourism in the area, including one of Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort’s biggest annual events, the West Virginia Derby.

Cuts to the purse fund likely will mean less prize money, making the event a less attractive draw for thoroughbred owners.

“It will be difficult to attract good horses,” he said.