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West Virginia's dilemma: Is tapping 'gray' cash OK?

April 09, 2001

West Virginia's dilemma: Is tapping 'gray' cash OK?



On Friday the West Virginia House passed Gov. Bob Wise's proposal to legalize the state's so-called "gray" video-poker machines and tap into what some lawmakers have estimated is a revenue stream worth $250 million a year.

But as the state senate prepares for a vote, there are still those who feel the emphasis on gambling is misplaced, and that the legislature should concentrate on true economic development. For the long term, we agree, but for the short term, gray machine revenue seems to be the only can in the cupboard, so to speak.

Republican Minority Leader Charles Trump summed up the opposition's position well when he said that once the machines were legal, the government's appetite for the dollars that they would produce will seduce lawmakers into approving more than the 9,000 machines that Wise's bill would legalize.

Trump also said that it is dangerous to fund the basic operations of government with gambling revenues, not a dependable source of cash.

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On the other side was House Speaker Bob Kiss, who said that if lawmakers want to give state employees pay raises, they would have to find additional revenue somewhere. Just where is the question.

The last revenue estimates predicted a shortfall in the coffers of a state which balanced its budget last year only by using cash from the national tobacco settlement. Many areas of the state continue to lose population, which means falling property- and income-tax revenues.

Gov. Wise's idea is to use gray machine revenue to fund college scholarships, on the theory that higher education is the state's only way out of a cycle of poverty that has endured for decades.

No one believes gambling is the best solution to the state's economic problems. But the choice here is not between a good solution and a bad one, but as House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores said, between doing nothing and doing something. When other revenue sources are developed, West Virginia can do as South Carolina did and outlaw the machines. Until then, Wise's bill is the only way to go.

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