WHEELING - Following a spirited Wednesday floor debate, 23 West Virginia senators outvoted 10 opponents to lower the annual table gambling fees for the state's four casinos from $2.5 million to $1.5 million.
The matter now lies in the hands of the House of Delegates, where members will take up the matter of deciding whether to lower fees for Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and the state's other three racetracks. A version of the bill must pass in both chambers by the end of the session on April 13 before it can be signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
"All we are asking for is a little bit of help in the face of heavy out-of-state competition," said Jim Simms, outgoing president and general manager of the Wheeling track, who has repeatedly said his facility may not renew its table gambling license in July if legislators do not lower the annual $2.5 million fee. The Wheeling facility projects operating its tables at a $1 million loss in 2013. Simms said the track has 105 employees whose jobs are directly tied to table gambling. "I really hope this does not become a partisan issue."
Speaking against the bill on the Senate floor Wednesday, Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said he was not convinced the Wheeling racetrack needed the break, especially when the state's budget is so tight.
"In the year that we're asking for 7.5 percent cuts and we're resisting most pay raises, the three racetracks don't need these and it's questionable in my mind whether the one we're doing it for does," Hall said.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he would like to see financial figures from the Wheeling track before the House considers the bill. Armstead also said that flagging finances alone would not be enough to justify a break on fees for the casinos.
"Even if they're able to justify and show us in their records and their books, again, there are many, many companies in different areas - the coal companies, the small mom-and-pop shops, the gas stations - they've all been struggling under the economic climate that we're in," Armstead said. "I would say that if you open the doors and say anyone who's struggling can get tax relief, there would be a line stretched to Braxton County."
Although these Republicans questioned the motives and needs of the Wheeling track, West Virginia Lottery Commission records show a vast discrepancy between the profitability of Wheeling Island and the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. the Wheeling Island track generated about $5.3 million worth of revenue from table gambling from July 1 through the end of February. During the same time period, the Charles Town track saw about $104.7 million from table gambling - nearly 20 times as much as the Wheeling facility.
Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, have said they believe the Wheeling track will eliminate its table games this year if the current $2.5 million fee is not lowered - a move that could leave 105 workers without jobs.
"We carried the ball as far as we could on our side. Now, it's up to the House to carry it over the goal line," Fitzsimmons said in using a football analogy. "But I am not in a position to predict what the House will do."
While it grappled with the problems of its existing casinos, the Senate also authorized the creation of a new one. That casino would be in Franklin and would hope to draw most of its customers from Virginia. The developers would have to spend at least $60 million on the project, building home sites and a hotel, in order to build the casino.
Winning the vote by a count of 25-8, the casino's supporters said its rural location would mean it would not take customers from West Virginia's other casinos.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, was the only Democrat to vote against both the new casino and the reduction in fees.
"We have a lot of casinos already in the state," Unger said. "Some of them aren't doing very well. They're wanting help. Adding another just doesn't make logical sense to me."