Bringing games to the table

December 19, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

EASTERN PANHANDLE, W.VA. - Blackjack, roulette, craps.

Moral dilemmas, budget quandaries, horse racing worries.

Bringing table games to West Virginia's four racetracks is a hot topic, but not an easy deal.

It's a serious matter that has caused local legislators to focus on a variety of issues - from how table games could hurt horse racing to making even more of the state's budget reliant on tenuous sources to the effects on addiction-prone individuals who would be happier handing their paychecks to a blackjack dealer than to a grocery store clerk.

"My take on that issue (table games) is, I have more questions than answers," said Del. Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson. "I won't support anything that doesn't include (a) local referendum."


Although he has heard from some people who support passing a bill now and asking questions later, Tabb disagrees. He particularly wants to know how additional revenue generated by table games will be dispersed around the state, and believes a significant portion should stay in Jefferson County for school and emergency services needs.

Table games are not the answer to problems caused if Maryland and Pennsylvania bring in slot machines, Tabb said.

A better solution to the state's financial woes would be to spend time talking about how to bring in more businesses and generate more economic development, Tabb said.

End of horse racing?

Mostly, though, Tabb is concerned about whether table games will ultimately lead to the demise of horse racing.

"That I am adamantly opposed to," he said.

Veer off the county's main roads and one will see horses, farms, hayfields. Blacksmiths. Veterinarians. Horse trainers.

"That is a vital industry for this area," said Tabb, and one that helps to preserve green space in a county where land quickly is being developed.

"There are a lot of hurdles that have to be crossed for me to be in favor of table games," Tabb said.

Although he has not heard from his constituents, Tabb said he knows there are people who oppose gambling in any form, and that there are those who will "bet on what time the sun will come up."

Most people, though, probably realize gambling is not going to solve their problems, or anyone else's.

"I think people realize that gambling is not going to be the savior for West Virginia," Tabb said.

Protecting the track

John Yoder, elected to a state Senate seat in November and already sworn in, shared concerns with Tabb about horse racing.

"I'm willing to vote for it if certain conditions are met," said Yoder, a Republican.

Yoder wants a strong whistle-blower law created that would protect any horseman or other track employee from retaliation if they speak about wrongdoings at the track to the media or anyone else.

He also wants the racetrack to be enlarged from six furlongs to seven furlongs to ensure the safety of the horses is paramount.

Slot machines were designed to help support the horse racing industry, said Yoder, who worries that four-legged animals will be replaced entirely by one-armed bandits and two-handed dealers.

John Doyle, D-Jefferson is also worried.

"I am opposed to them (table games) at Charles Town," Doyle said. "First of all, they don't need them. Charles Town will not need table games until and unless Maryland adopts racetrack slots."

The only tracks that he believes need table games are the two in the Northern Panhandle, a portion of the state bordered by Pennsylvania.

Doyle said he might support a bill in favor of table games only if they are installed in the two Northern Panhandle racetracks. He said he might support having local residents vote on the matter should Maryland start offering slots.

Doyle said his relationship with Charles Town Races & Slots "really soured" around nine months ago when the track reneged on a promise to widen the racetrack's turns.

Like Yoder, Doyle believes the track needs to be increased by a furlong (220 yards), with the added distance incorporated into wider - and thereby safer - turns.

Fiscal concerns

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, is most concerned with the economic effect of table games, especially considering 17 percent of the state's budget comes from gambling.

Gaming officials say that without table games, the state could find its revenues down by $70 million to $90 million.

Unger, though, said he's not willing to play their games, and he said he's tired of the Legislature talking about gambling instead of concerns he believes are more pressing - including boosting economic development, restructuring the state's tax code and figuring out a way to pay off the state's debts.

If legislators do tackle the table games topic in their February session, he hopes voters statewide first will be asked whether they want table games.

If they vote in the affirmative, Unger believes residents of each of the four counties that have a track should vote on whether they want table games. Currently, plans only call for table games to be allowed at the state's four racetracks.

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