The state Senate has devised a last-minute plan to try to save table games at the Wheeling Island casino. The legislation would reduce for one year the annual table games licensing fee from the current $2.5 million to $1.5 million for each of the four racetracks and casinos.
Gambling revenues have been dropping because of increased competition from surrounding states, and Wheeling Island has been hit the hardest. Wheeling casino officials say table games will lose money this year and they may not renew their annual table games license in July, which would cost several hundred jobs.
The legislation cleared the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday after a long debate, and then passed amendment stage in the Senate later in the day 24-8 with two members absent.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Roman Prezioso, who has historically opposed gambling legislation, guided the bill through the committee and on the Senate floor.
“Wheeling is in jeopardy,” Prezioso said. “We can’t afford to take any chances of one of the casinos not being able to pay their licensing fee.”
Prezioso said the licensing break will give Wheeling some time while lawmakers do a comprehensive study of the gambling industry and the impact of increased competition.
“This is a short term solution,” Prezioso said. “We’ve got long term financial problems in the gambling industry.”
Prezioso said those who reached the compromise believe, in the interest of fairness, that the licensing fee break should be given to all four tracks instead of just Wheeling.
Senate Republicans fought the bill. Senator Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said the state is “chasing a bad bet,” adding that increased competition in gambling is an economic reality that the state couldn’t do anything about.
“What are we doing to do to make it so that there’s going to be more people come when we’ve got competition in Ohio and Pennsylvania… (are we) going to put strip clubs in to draw the folks in?” Blair asked.
Opposition came on the Senate floor from Jackson County Republican Mitch Carmichael.
“We can’t cut a tax for manufacturing, for corporate net income tax, for any other business in West Virginia, and yet we can come in here and for gambling, for table games, we can reduce their fees,” Carmichael said.
The licensing fee helps pay for in-home health services for the elderly. The legislation calls for that $4 million shortfall to be made up with other lottery monies.