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Lawmakers ante up on table games

March 04, 2005|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - Eastern Panhandle lawmakers had mixed reactions Thursday to a plan to possibly allow legalization of casino-style table games in counties such as Jefferson County, saying they might support them depending on how revenues from the games are spent and how state residents are allowed to vote on the games.

But there was no mincing of words from state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

"I'm not participating in it. Every year I've been down here, they've been running around (promoting) gambling," Unger said in a telephone interview from Charleston, W.Va.

"Sometimes I feel like a gaming commissioner more than a legislator," he said.

Several hundred racetrack workers, executives and local government officials rallied Thursday in Charleston for bills to allow table games, and advocates said the games will stem the loss of gamblers and revenue to other states.

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Unger said the state already is too reliant on gambling revenue and he fears the state would be more reliant on gambling revenue from table games.

Unger criticized the state for being reluctant to allow counties like those in the Eastern Panhandle to have more flexibility to run their government, but yet there is a push to allow local residents to vote on table games.

Two bills introduced in the Legislature would allow racetrack host counties - like Jefferson County - to hold local elections on whether table games should be allowed.

Unger said he fears that if table games are allowed in the state, the gambling interests eventually will want to do away with horse racing, feeling it will not be profitable enough.

"The gambling industry does not care about West Virginia. I don't want to see anything that will hurt (the horse racing) industry," Unger said.

Del. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley/Morgan, said he probably will vote against table games "in any form" because his constituents are opposed to the games.

Del. Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson, said he would support table games if a "reasonable" amount of money from them is kept at the local level to support needs like expanded fire and rescue services. Tabb said he believes table games and horse racing can operate successfully together.

In the past, Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said he initially supported allowing Hancock and Ohio counties in the Northern Panhandle to have local elections on table games because of the new competition the tracks in those counties will be facing from Pennsylvania, which is about to offer slot machines.

But Doyle said he is concerned that if the law is changed to allow Hancock and Ohio to have the elections, there could be a push from other counties in West Virginia to have elections.

Then the state will have to reopen the law to allow those counties to vote, Doyle said.

"My mind is in flux right now," Doyle said.

Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson, said he is leaning toward support of table games but has not made up his mind.

Yoder said he wants to see a more detailed explanation of how revenues from table games would be used. Yoder said he does not want to see the state use the revenues in a way that would cause it to become dependent on the money.

Yoder said he would like to see the money used for purposes like paying off the Workers' Compensation debt.

In order for him to support table games, Del. Locke Wysong, D-Jefferson, said he needs assurances that a local election would be allowed on the games and that a certain amount of revenue from the games would stay in local communities where they are allowed.

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