West Virginia’s perennial issue of state financial support for greyhound racing could circle back to be considered by new Republican supermajorities in the coming legislative session.
“I think there’s a number of members in the Senate who care about this issue and will be willing to fight for it,” said Carey Theil, executive director of Grey2KUSA, a national organization that pushes to end dog racing.
“It’s not going to be an easy fight. I recognize that.”
The state Senate is a key battleground in the debate because President Mitch Carmichael was outspoken last year for ending state support for greyhound racing.
But when it came to a vote, several members of the Senate’s Republican majority crossed over and joined all the Democrats to knock down the bill 11-23.
Three years ago, a similar bill passed both houses of the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice. That year, with a big budget gap, there was an additional argument that the state desperately needed to divert $14 million that would have gone to greyhound racing to help balance the state budget instead.
West Virginia is one of just a handful of states where greyhound racing remains legal.
Florida voters voted to ban betting on greyhounds by Dec. 31 of this year. The last active dog racing track in Texas closed this past June. Iowa and Arkansas are set to close their last tracks by 2022.
In West Virginia, the two remaining tracks are at Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras in Cross Lanes.
What West Virginia lawmakers have considered in years past is not an outright ban, but it would cause the tracks to bleed financially. Supporters and opponents agree that would make continuation untenable.
Such bills would eliminate the state’s role in funding the greyhound breeder’s fund and purses for races. Money in the fund comes from other fees paid by the state’s casinos. The state handles the money through Lottery funds, transferring it to support racing.
Grey 2K has been pushing the bill for years, aiming for West Virginia to join the other places where racing is no more.
The organization hopes it has additional leverage with next year’s legislative session, which will see incoming GOP supermajorities in the Senate and House of Delegates.
Republicans enjoyed landslide victories across West Virginia races this fall in a state where President Trump remains very popular.
Grey2K acknowledges that’s the big picture, but suggests its efforts might have played some role in key races. The organization sent out 50,000 postcards during the electoral cycle to voters in four Senate districts.
“This issue is toxic with voters,” Theil said. “If lawmakers vote to continue these subsidies to the greyhound industry, they run the risk of this being an issue to the voters next time they’re on the ballot.”
In Senate District 10, the organization targeted Democrat Bill Laird’s position on greyhound racing when he previously served and highlighted Republican Jack Woodrum’s support for ending financial support. Woodrum was the winner.
In a Republican primary race in District 11, Grey2K targeted the incumbent Republican, John Pitsenbarger, and supported his opponent, Robert Karnes. Karnes, a Republican who had sponsored a bill to end support for dog racing when he was in the Senate previously, was the winner of the primary and then the general.
And in District 12, Grey2K publicly supported Republican challenger Patrick Martin over Democratic incumbent Doug Facemire, with Martin winning. In District 17, the organization pushed for Republican Eric Nelson over Democrat Andrew Robinson, with Nelson winning the open seat.
“We aren’t claiming that these postcards were the decisive factor but do believe they made a difference, especially in close races,” Theil said. “Flipping all four dramatically closes the gap in terms of getting a bill through the upper chamber.”
One of the Legislature’s most vocal supporters of greyhound racing is Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, who represents areas near Wheeling Island. He emphasizes the hundreds of jobs associated with the activity.
He doesn’t see a bill ending the industry this year.
“I don’t foresee it happening because I think we’ve educated our colleagues in the Capitol about what’s really going on, how Grey2K is pushing a false narrative,” Fluharty said last week on MetroNews’ “Talkline.
He said, “It’s a p.r. campaign. It’s not driven by facts or analysis.”