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Legislators say table games proposal is dicey

December 30, 2005|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - The idea of legalizing table games like poker and blackjack for Charles Town Races & Slots and other racing facilities in the state is getting cool reception from local lawmakers who say the area does not need the expanded gambling.

Lawmakers say legislation allowing table games at the local track and three other racing facilities is likely to get another look in the Legislature, which begins its regular session Jan. 11.

A bill that would let Kanawha, Jefferson, Hancock and Ohio counties vote on table games died at the end of the last legislative session, and officials believe the measure will be considered again in the upcoming session.

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Robert D. Marshall Jr., president of Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center, said if the four host counties are not allowed to vote soon, jobs will start to disappear.

Marshall has said the state will lose at least $30 million from its tax base when Pennsylvania's 61,000 slot machines come online unless West Virginia's gambling halls can offer something more enticing. Table games, now available in 11 other states, could raise revenue by at least $15 million a year, he says.

Officials with Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Charles Town Races & Slots, said they would support a table game bill if the tax rate is reasonable and the bill is "written appropriately."

John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming Inc., told The Associated Press recently that the games could create 500 to 700 new positions.

Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson, said he worries about how table games would affect the local economy. The jobless rate in Jefferson County is already extremely low, and if table games generated another several hundred new jobs at the track, it would draw workers away from existing businesses, Tabb said.

Tabb said he also was opposed to the way last year's table game legislation was written.

The four racetrack counties would have been able to vote on the games under the legislation, but voters in those counties could never have a referendum on the games again, Tabb said.

Tabb said he wants county voters to have the right to periodically vote on the games in case people feel table games are not good for the county.

"I haven't heard much from my constituents in favor of it," Del. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said of any table game legislation.

Although Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson/Berkeley, said the gaming industry has enough votes in the Senate for table games, he has concerns about it.

Yoder said he is worried about the state growing dependent on gambling revenue for general revenue.

Then if the gambling revenue ever dried up, the state would be "addicted" to it and would have to resort to tax increases to make up the difference, Yoder said.

Sen. John Unger said it seems like some type of gambling issue comes up every year in the Legislature.

Unger said expanded gambling options only take away from the discussion of other economic development issues that are important to the state.

"I really don't think much of it," said Unger, adding that the state needs to instead concentrate on something that "means something in people's lives."

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