Table-Games Bill Passes West Virginia House

Racetrack table-games legislation cleared the West Virginia House of Delegates on a 55-42 vote Feb. 16, marking the first time the chamber has voted on the tracks' quest to offer blackjack, roulette, and similar games.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where gambling foes will have another chance to derail it. The racetracks, meanwhile, hope to persuade senators to reduce the legislation's 35% tax on game proceeds and its multimillion-dollar annual license fees.

Democrats hold 72 of 100 seats, and several broke ranks to side with the minority Republicans against the bill. House Bill 2718 would let the four racetrack counties--Hancock, Jefferson, Kanawha, and Ohio--vote on permitting table games. Charles Town Races & Slots is located in Jefferson County, while Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort is in Hancock County. The other two tracks are Greyhound facilities.

Each track would ask its county commission to add the question to the next primary or general election ballot. A track could request a special election, but could pay its costs. The bill would also allow a recall election after five years.

Supporters argue table games will bring more and better-paying jobs to each track. They also believe they would help preserve the jobs and revenue linked to the thousands of video lottery machines at the tracks.

Slot-machine casinos began opening in Pennsylvania late last year. Maryland and Ohio have also debated legalizing slots. The West Virginia tracks contend table games would give them an edge over such competitors.

In urging its passage, Delegate John Doyle said the bill would aid the state's struggling Northern Panhandle, where Mountaineer is located. But the Jefferson County Democrat said that as written, the bill fails Charles Town, the track in his district.

Doyle successfully amended the bill Feb. 15 with measures meant to preserve and enhance the state's racing and breeding industries. But he predicted Jefferson County voters would reject table games unless further such measures are added.

Gambling foes argue the tracks' out-of-state owners are using West Virginia as leverage to enter the region's larger, richer markets. They view the table-games question as a chance to reverse the state's growing reliance on gambling revenue.

Controlled by the state lottery, racetrack VLTs have grossed more than $5.2 billion since 1995. About 41% of that, or $2.1 billion, has benefited state government and that of the tracks' county and local hosts.

The bill's House supporters rebuffed several attempts to require a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment for table games. They also crafted the bill so it declares blackjack, roulette, and other table games the state's "intellectual property." Meant as a way to assert state ownership and control, critics have questioned that approach.