CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Sen. Mitch Carmichael wants to renew the push to dry up dog racing in West Virginia, but it’s not yet clear if the rest of the legislative pack is with him.
“This is an industry that has come and gone. It makes no sense for the taxpayers of this state to continue to subsidize what amounts in my view to an inhumane activity. It just boggles the mind,” Carmichael, R-Jackson, said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
That word “subsidy” is a major bone of contention.
Money is collected from the state’s casinos, flows through state Lottery and then goes back into greyhound breeder’s fund and purses for races.
Opponents call that a subsidy. Supporters say it’s a financial transfer with the state in the middle.
The Legislature voted to end the practice in 2017 when the state was in a budget crisis. The $14 million the state handles for greyhound racing was one of many pieces of the budget puzzle.
Gov. Jim Justice vetoed the bill, traveling to Wheeling, where the racing that takes place at Wheeling Island is considered a significant local economic driver.
“Greyhounds are born runners, and I hope to keep them running in West Virginia for a very long time,” Justice said then.
Carmichael this week wrote an op-ed for West Virginia newspapers, kicking up the greyhound racing debate yet again.
He argued not only against the state passing along the money to support greyhound racing but also took note of injuries to the dogs.
“Is this where you want to spend $14 million of taxpayer money? I would much rather put it toward health or education,” he said. “That money could be used for anything else the elected leaders of West Virginia want to use it for.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) September 18, 2019
His position drew fire from Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, who represents the Wheeling area.
“I think it’s clear he’s clueless on the greyhound industry,” Fluharty said. “It’s truly amazing our Senate president is vocally supportive of killing 1,700 jobs in the Northern Panhandle.”
The 1,700 jobs was part of a study cited during the last go-round for this debate. It includes both direct and indirect employment related to dog racing.
“Typically, the Senate president should be pushing to add 1,700 jobs to a struggling economy, not taking away,” Fluharty said. “Usually we’d be throwing a ticker tape parade if he passed legislation to add jobs.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) September 18, 2019
In 2017, the House of Delegates passed the greyhound racing bill 56-44 while the Senate passed the bill 19-15.
Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, questions whether a similar bill would still have the same support. Butler last year announced plans to run for Senate in the district that Carmichael currently represents.
“I don’t think the votes are there in the House to stop funding for greyhound breeding anymore,” Butler said. “Therefore it is ‘safe’ for Carmichael to propose eliminating it now.”
His premise was based on support last year for a bill that restored $11 million in funding to racetrack purse funds.
“The only reason I say we probably would not have the votes is because we just passed the new subsidy,” said Butler, who argued at the time that the state has greater financial priorities such as education. “It would be odd for a large majority to switch positions now I think.”
Senator Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said he’ll part ways with Carmichael on this one. Weld said the jobs related to racing are important to the district he represents.
“We went through this in 2017, and I made it well known then,” Weld said in a telephone interview. “I was opposed to any effort that would hurt the employees of this industry, that would hurt the City of Wheeling through the loss of revenue from the industry.”
Weld contended that the financial arrangement does not represent a subsidy: “It’s money that the greyhound track receives from revenues created at the casino through their gaming.
“For some reason whenever this relationship was established in code, the money went from the casino to the state who then handed it to the industry,” Weld said. “I’m not sure why the state was ever put in place as a middle man.”
He objected to diverting the money to the state’s General Fund, rather than having a specific plan for its use.
“So if it’s revenue generated by the casino wouldn’t it then be proper to give it to the casino? What are we using this money for that’s revenue generated at the casino? Are we going to use it to assist the city of Wheeling or other municipalities located in Ohio County?” Weld asked.
“Are we just doing a money grab here or are we going to leave that money in the locality it’s generated in?”