House debates restoring money to racetrack purse funds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Thursday’s House floor session Thursday clicked along quietly and briskly, with lots of 99-0 votes, until a proposed amendment to a routine, under-the-radar bill prompted more than 30 minutes of debate.

And shortly after, a pair of proposed amendments to another bill led to another long debate.

The big debate revolved around SB 13, on second reading, amendment stage.

Del. Patrick Martin

It’s a 12-page bill whose last sentence contains the essence of the bill. It restores $11 million in racetrack purse funds that had been annually diverted since 2005 to help pay off the $4 billion Workers’ Comp debt back to the four tracks

As explained on the House floor, the Legislature in 2005 sought concessions from the coal, gas, racing and other industries to allot a share of their revenues to paying off the debt. The special assessments to coal, gas and others have been terminated and this was the last to go.

But Delegate Patrick Martin, R-Lewis, proposed to divide that $11 million evenly among the 55 county school boards, giving them $200,000 each per year.

Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, supported it. He noted that the tracks’ purse funds totaled $40 million in 2018, and they don’t really need any more.

Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, said that among the state’s funding priorities, education stands near the top and gambling near the bottom. He added that the state owns the tracks. Constituent calls come in every day about roads and education, not about racing.

And Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, said that $200,000 per county could pay for counselors, teachers, school security, mental health providers. “This is a no-brainier, guys.”

Opponents argued that SB 13 fulfills a promise made back in 2005, that taking the money would stop when the debt was paid off, and that promise has been fulfilled to all the other industries that contributed.

Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, said that raising the purse funds will attract more racetrack patrons and more horses, which in turn would raise state Excess Lottery revenue that goes to support education and senior services, among other things. Keeping the money could harm the already declining industry and threaten that revenue stream.

Del. Erikka Storch (R-Ohio)

Delegates Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, and Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, talked about the thousands of jobs that the tracks provide in their district and the other track districts, and the money the tracks generate that benefit the whole state.

Support and opposition was bipartisan, and the amendment failed 19-78. All local delegates voted against it.

The other amendments also dealt with a racetrack bill, HB 2901, also on second reading. The bill would allow the four tracks to establish secondary casinos in their home counties.

It originated because Wheeling Island track is already facing challenges due to its out-of-the-way and flood-prone location, and the track operators want a second (track-free) casino site to maintain business during the planned I-70 bridge work through Wheeling.

Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, posed an amendment to limit the potential expansion to only the Wheeling Island operation, and only for five years.

Swartzmiller and Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, posed a sub-amendment to that, to include the other Panhandle track, Mountaineer.

The sub-amendment failed in a 28-68 roll call vote. Taking up the main amendment, Storch argued that the five-year limit is too short, given the constant delays to the project and the slow pace of the Roads to Prosperity plan.

McGeehan and Delegate Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, argued that singling out just one of the four tracks was fundamentally unfair. The Cowles amendment failed overwhelmingly in a voice vote.

Both bills go to third reading for passage on Friday.

Bills passed

The House passed a couple handfuls of bills. All the ones noted here passed unanimously with no debate and go to the Senate, except where noted.

–SB 270 streamlines the process for utilities to obtain access to Division of Highways rights of way. Goes to the governor.

–HB 2515 exempts from sales tax the sale of mobility enhancing equipment for installation in vehicles for people with disabilities.

–HB 2854 exempts from sales tax the purchase of items by nonprofit groups for school fundraisers.

–HB 2886 requires the DMV to place an office in every county with a population of 25,000 or more, unless the county seat is less than 25 miles from a DMV office. Also requires the DMV to place a Now kiosk in ever county with less than 25,000 people unless the county seat is less than 25 miles from a DMV office. Expected to affect 13 counties.

–HB 2924 allows the state Tourism Office to enter an agreement with DOH to place tourism ads on the DOH WV511 road conditions website.

–HB 2929 allows Tourism to work with DOH to place Tourism staff at rest stops and welcome centers.

–HB 2933 increases the penalties for child abuse resulting in serious injury or death.

 





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