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Legislature will finally get video-poker bill in January

December 13, 1999

After more than two years of study, members of a West Virginia legislative study committee say they'll offer a bill to deal with the state's many "gray" video-poker machines. If what the committee proposes amounts to a full-scale legalization of slot machines, we're opposed.

No such recommendation has been made yet, but may be, given the difficulties in enforcing the rules regarding video-poker machines. The so-called "gray machines" are commonly found in bars and convenience stores and are legal to play for amusement only.

Problems arise when operators make cash payoffs to winners. At that point, the state loses revenue because the illegal winnings are untaxed. And depending on how patrons bet, the operators may also have a second illegal source of income.

The enforcement problem is obvious; a machine designed for amusement only can be converted to a gambling device as soon as an operator decides to accept bets or make pay-offs for certain scores. It's just as easy to do with an old-fashioned pinball machine as a video-poker device, though the latter is probably more addictive.

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In our view, there's enough gambling available to citizens without legalizing cash play on video poker machines. And it wouldn't just be a matter of legalizing cash play on existing machines. Once the bill passes, every corner store, gas station and supermarket will have one.

If the recommendation favors of legalization, we hope that after two years of study, the group can present some firm estimates on the cost of enforcement and what revenues the state would receive. If legalization means that the state will have to spend 75 cents for every $1 it brings in, that, coupled with the cost of things like state employee retirement, could make this a losing proposition.

One thing the legislature should do this term is clarify state rules governing bingo and raffles. In one case cited recently, proceeds could be used by a non-profit to pay its rent, but not to buy a building. If one is legal, the other should be.

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