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More gambling? Study it first How much gambling is enough?

November 14, 2003

That question could dominate the next West Virginia governor's race, if Democratic candidate Joe Manchin has his way.

We feel that's the wrong approach. Adding table games to the state's horse tracks, as Manchin proposes, would be a major escalation of gambling, a step that should not be taken without more study than it's likely to get in an election campaign.

Manchin, West Virginia's secretary of state, this week said that the four counties that now have slot machines at their race tracks should have the opportunity to decide whether they want to add so-called table games to their offerings.

Manchin said he would like to give them that option, provided that the citizens of those counties - Hancock, Jefferson, Kanawha and Ohio - get their say in local elections.

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Gov. Bob Wise has rejected the idea that adding new games would provide much additional revenue for the state budget and won't make it part of his 2004 legislative package.

But David Callaghan, manager of former Democratic state senator Lloyd Jackson's gubernatorial campaign, said he expects much debate on the idea in the next legislative session.

An up-or-down vote on this issue in an election year would be unwise, because the necessary study hasn't been done yet. If lawmakers want to do gambling right, they'll pass a bill to create an independent group to explore the following topics:

- How additional gambling, particularly high-stakes games, would affect the growth of gambling addiction and related crimes such as embezzlement. Since all these facilities depend on a percentage of local players, this issue can't be ignored.

- How much is a fair percentage to give the tracks for hosting this activity. In these cases, the usual claim is that they're barely getting by. We don't believe it.

- How it would affect businesses in the area. A facility touted as a tourism draw will be no bonanza if its main effect is to suck dollars away from other local enterprises.

It's tempting to believe that it's possible to get new revenue painlessly without raising taxes. Some study of how it has worked elsewhere should reveal expanded gambling's true costs.

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