West Virginia Tracks Would Get Table Games Under Bill

Armed with lessons from repeated legislative setbacks and Pennsylvania’s entry into slot-machine gaming, West Virginia’s four racetracks are making a new bid for casino table games.

The bill debuted Jan 30. As with versions that failed the last two years, the measure would allow each of the tracks’ host counties to vote on permitting such games, make the games part of the state lottery system, and give government a share of the profits. But unlike the prior legislative sessions, a long-warned-of threat is now real: Neighboring Pennsylvania opened its first slots parlors late last year.

“It has to be the year. It’s a jobs issue, especially in the Northern Panhandle,” said Bob Marshall, president of Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center. “Pennsylvania is upon us.”

The cross-border competition could aid the tracks as they argue that blackjack, poker, and other games will blunt the loss of gamblers and revenue. The tracks have also renewed their pledge to add more and higher-paying jobs to run the games if they’re approved by the state legislature.

The four tracks--two are Thoroughbred and two are Greyhound--currently have video lottery terminals. The Thoroughbred tracks are Charles Town Races & Slots and Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort.

Table game foes plan to fight the legislation. “Gambling creates more problems than it solves,” said the Rev. Dennis Sparks of the West Virginia Council of Churches. “Gambling is dragging this state down. It’s not giving us hope.”

Even if a bill passes during the current session, the tracks could face a legal challenge over county-option elections. Some opponents advocate a statewide vote, and some arguing the state constitution must be amended to permit full-blown casinos.

“I envision that we would take a very serious look at it if that was to happen,” Sparks said of filing a lawsuit.

Even before its introduction, the bill has changed several times since drafting began at the session’s start. It allows each county to reverse the approval of table games five years after the initial vote. It will also offer the state 24% of gross proceeds--twice the initial rate.