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Delegate says don't bet on passage of table games bill

February 02, 2006|By DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A Jefferson County lawmaker on Wednesday attacked a bill in the Legislature that would allow casino table games at Charles Town Races & Slots and three other tracks in the state, saying the measure takes away Jefferson County's right to control gaming through elections.

Currently, Jefferson County voters have the ability to put the track's right to have slot machines on the ballot for an up-or-down vote, said Del. Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson.

Under the bill (HB4314) in the Legislature that allows for casino table games such as blackjack and roulette, county voters could never have a referendum again on slot machines or table games if they approved table games in a county election, Tabb said.

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Tabb said county voters need to be able to call for a referendum on gaming at the track in case there ever is an attempt to eliminate horse racing at the track.

Tabb said it is important for residents to be able to protect horse racing in the county because the industry is strong here.

Purses in horse races are high and new horse breeding facilities are being built in Jefferson and Berkeley counties, which has the spinoff effect of generating more green space in the Eastern Panhandle, Tabb said.

With Pennsylvania poised to license slot machine parlors as early as this summer, West Virginia's racetracks returned to the Legislature on Wednesday to press for casino table games to lessen the resulting blow to their video lottery operations.

House Speaker Bob Kiss and his two major committee chairmen co-sponsored the bill (HB4314) sought by the four tracks to allow their host counties to vote on permitting such games.

Eric Schippers, spokesman for Charles Town Races & Slots, said Charles Town did not have a representative at the Legislature on Wednesday. But Charles Town supports the bill as it is written, Schippers said.

Schippers said it makes sense to have table games available to the state's tracks because of increased gaming competition from other states.

"All of the neighboring states have been looking at gaming in one way or another," Schippers said.

House Democrats, who hold 68 of 100 seats, appear divided on the issue. Recent discussions among the leadership revealed no clear consensus, some of those leaders said.

"My quote would be, 'Don't bet on it,''' Tabb said of the table gaming bill.

"I'm not willing to give up the referendum in exchange for table games," Tabb said.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, also expressed concerns about the table games bill Wednesday.

Unger said slot machines generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the state, but horse racing brings in less revenue and it is a more-complicated industry. Unger said he could see tracks complaining some day that horse racing is too expensive and all they want to have is other forms of gambling.

"I think it will be the demise of horse racing," Unger said of table games.

Despite its Republican co-sponsors, House GOP members are expected to lead efforts to defeat the bill.

"I'm still convinced that it's unconstitutional," said Del. Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. "I don't think it's economic development. I don't think it produces anything in this state."

Armstead believes the Legislature and voters must amend West Virginia's Constitution, as they did for the lottery in 1984, to allow such table games as blackjack. A lawyer, Armstead disagrees with bill supporters who view the games as an extension of the state's lottery system.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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