Effort to boost horse, greyhound racing advances

DISCUSSES AMENDMENT — Del. Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, speaks out on an amendment to a bill that would have taken $11 million for horse and greyhound racing purse funds. -- Photo courtesy/WV Legislative Photography

CHARLESTON — An effort to restore $11 million annually to the purse funds for horse and greyhound racing at state casinos is up for passage in the House of Delegates today after a lengthy amendment debate Thursday.

Senate Bill 13 would require the West Virginia Racing Commission to deposit $11 million from the excess lottery fund to be used for regular purse distribution at racetracks that offer horse and greyhound racing starting July 1, 2019.

The money itself is generated by the state’s four racetracks — Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, Mardi Gras Casino in Cross Lanes, Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort in Chester, and Wheeling Island Casino — and deposited in the excess lottery fund.

In 2006, the state took money from several sources, including $11 million from the purse funds, to pay off the debt left over after the workers’ compensation program was privatized.

The Worker’s Compensation Old Fund had a debt of $3 billion in 2006. The racing industry has contributed $154 million towards paying off the old fund debt over 14 years.

“These monies were originally taken away from the breeders to help with the workers’ comp fund trying to make sure that we take care of the past sins of the state-run worker’s comp,” said House Finance Committee Chairman Vernon Criss, R-Wood. “Now we have that fund in a pretty good shape. Once this fund was taken care of, we would put this money back and give it back to the breeders of both horses and dogs.”

“At that point, the racing industry was fairly healthy, so not too many people complained too hard about it,” said Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson. “They were given the absolute assurance that once worker’s comp was paid off, the money would go back to where the legislature intended.”

The bill was read a second time Thursday, but not before Del. Patrick Martin, R-Lewis, attempted to amend the bill to take the $11 million and distribute it to all 55 counties on an annual basis for county boards of education. The amendment failed 19-78. Martin said a vote for his amendment was a vote for education.

“This is $11 million that’s going towards a gambling subsidy,” Martin said. “I feel like this money would be better going to the county boards of education…right now is a chance for you all to make (teachers) a priority.”

Delegates speaking in favor of Martin’s amendment argued that the purse fund was the state’s money and didn’t belong to the casinos or breeders.

“The fact is that we own the entire industry and we regulate it by general law,” said Del. Jim Butler, R-Mason. “I don’t think this is the place to put another $11 million when we supposedly have a big budget surplus this year…we have a place where this money is much better spent.”

Multiple delegates representing districts where horse and greyhound racing is located rose to speak out against the amendment.

“By giving them back what we took, who wants to oppose that,” asked Del. Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, who was in the legislature in 2005 when lawmakers voted to use the $11 million for the old fund. “We gave it back to everyone else, but we’re not going to give it back to them because they don’t serve it? Because they’re way down there on somebody’s list? You want to know something? They’re way up here on my list.”

“This amendment would have the effect of perpetuating that really unfair and inequitable treatment for our horse industry, our greyhound industry, that did their part in helping retire this debt,” said House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson. “This is restoring funds they were previously receiving.”

Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, pointed out that by not reallocating the $11 million back to the purse funds, it would hurt those casinos’ abilities to bring more money into the excess lottery fund, which already goes towards education, tourism, and seniors.

“Now, with this amendment, you want to hurt the tracks which will hurt the excess lottery funds which will hurt education,” Fluharty said. “I think it’s pretty clear that although it might look good on the title, the effect is actually very anti-education.”

Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said he would vote down the amendment, but hoped lawmakers from the districts where the racetracks were located would keep in mind the needs of coal country.

“We didn’t get all the new roads, we didn’t get all the new service projects, we didn’t get all the new sewer lines, we didn’t get all the new water lines, and we didn’t get the big stadiums,” Steele said. “What we got was a bunch of hurt, a lot of devastation, and a lot of the drug epidemic. We got an industry that we’re clinging onto for dear life, because it’s the only thing helping us.”

SB 13 is up for passage today. Introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, it passed the state Senate unanimously on Feb. 13. If it passes today, it will go to Gov. Jim Justice for his approval or veto.