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Senate OKs one-year fee cut for casinos

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In a late-hour compromise, the Senate Tuesday evening approved what Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, termed a "short-term solution to a long-term problem" to keep table games operating at the Wheeling Island racetrack casino.

As amended, the bill (SB615) would cut annual table game license fees for the state's four racetrack casinos, due on July 1, from $2.5 million to $1.5 million for one year only. The $4 million of lost revenue would be made up from Lottery reserve funds, which is meant to avoid cuts in a Bureau of Senior Services program that provides in-home care for seniors.

That, Prezioso said, would avoid having Wheeling Island surrender its table games license on June 30, and would give the Legislature a year to study the impact of competition from new casinos in Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania as part of a separate bill (SB656, up for a passage vote in the Senate Wednesday).

"All I want to do is buy some time, so we can sit down ... and look at this thing in a manner that we can make some intelligent decisions about what we're going to do with our gaming and racing industries," Prezioso told the Senate.

"All you have to do is roll a map out and see the demographics of the gaming industry that's all around West Virginia," he said earlier.

The hardest hit of the four racetrack casinos, Wheeling Island has seen its table games revenue drop from a peak of $25 million a year to $12 million last year, and down to $8 million this budget year, as players have opted for competing casinos in metro Pittsburgh, Columbus and Cleveland.

Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie, a former state senator, said if Wheeling Island drops table games, the immediate impact would be a loss of about $750,000 in gaming taxes for the city, as well as the loss of 200 to 300 jobs at the casino.

However, he said that would be just the start of a chain reaction of events hitting the gaming industry in the state.

"This is not a Wheeling problem. This is a gaming problem for the state of West Virginia. It just started happening first at Wheeling Island," he said.

Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, questioned whether the fee cut should be limited to Wheeling Island, noting that Penn National, the parent company of the racetrack-casino in Charles Town, reported $200 million in profits last year. However, he withdrew an amendment to restrict the fee cut to the one casino.

Because Wednesday is the last day this session that the Senate can act on Senate bills, the bill had to pass amendment stage on the Senate floor Tuesday -- and did so Tuesday evening.

The stopgap amendment to lower the license fees to $1.5 million this year only was approved on a 24-8 vote, over objections from Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.

"We can't cut a tax for manufacturing, or the corporate income tax, or any other tax in West Virginia, but we can cut a tax for gambling," he said.

Also Tuesday, the Senate passed and sent to the House bills to:

 

  • Require the Public Employees Insurance Agency to provide maternity coverage for dependants on employees' health insurance plans (SB22).
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  • Create a shale research center at West Virginia University (SB98).
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  • Develop an outcome-based funding plan for state colleges and universities (SB326). As amended, implementation of the plan, which would reward institutions with higher graduation and retention rates, and other measurements of achievement. The bill advanced on a 29-5 vote with Sens. Beach, Carmichael, Facemire, Green and Daniel Hall voting no.
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  • Transfer the Industrial Home for Youth at Salem to the Division of Corrections for use as a prison for adult offenders (SB610).
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    Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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