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Odds are good for table games bill passage

March 09, 2007|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The House and Senate gave final approval Thursday to legislation that would allow Charles Town Races & Slots and three other racetracks in the state to pursue blackjack, roulette and similar casino table games. Gov. Joe Manchin said he expects to sign the bill.

Acting on a recurring issue that dominated much of this session, each chamber voted to approve the bill (HB 2718), which permits local elections in each of the four track counties on whether to authorize the games.

Manchin told The Associated Press Thursday he will sign the bill, barring any technical or legal flaws.

The bill includes a provision that would direct a portion of table games revenue from Charles Town Races & Slots to Jefferson County Schools for school construction.

The school funding mechanism was included in the bill after lawmakers including Del. Locke Wysong, D-Jefferson, worked hard on the proposal, lawmakers said.

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The amount that would go to schools would be about 3 percent of the track's gross table games receipts and would generate at least $1 million per year, local lawmakers said.

John Finamore said he considered the local school funding provision "a major coup" for the school system.

"When you look at the bill in its entirety, you see a lot of good things in there," said Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Charles Town Races & Slots.

Finamore could not say when the track might consider pushing for a local referendum on table games, adding that track officials have been too busy concentrating on "getting across the goal line."

Jefferson County Commissioner Dale Manuel said he has not heard much about how local residents feel about the games. Manuel said he thinks Jefferson County residents might have been surprised about the success of the table games bill in the Legislature.

If a county approves table games, it would become part of the state Lottery system. West Virginia would join Iowa as the only other state to have slots, table games and racing at a single location, according to the American Gaming Association. The trade group says 11 states host casinos.

The tracks have pursued table games since 2004, but gambling foes and other critics have blocked previous incarnations of the bill.

The tracks already provide hundreds of jobs and hefty public revenues - $2.1 billion since 1995 - thanks to the thousands of video lottery machines they host. But Pennsylvania began opening competing slot machine casinos late last year, and Maryland and Ohio have debated legalizing such devices.

Most who gamble at West Virginia's tracks hail from other states, surveys indicate. Charles Town Races & Slots draws patrons from nearby suburban Washington, D.C., Virginia and Baltimore. Table games could help it retain its base while offering fans of Atlantic City in those areas a closer alternative, Lottery Marketing Director Libby White said .

"If Charles Town were to have table games then it would be pre-emptive in the competitive race for gaming and thoroughbred racing," White said.

But foes consider the emerging competition a chance to lessen the state's reliance on gambling revenue.

"This state is addicted to gambling," Del. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, told the House before its final vote. "This bill feeds that voracious appetite of exploitation of our people."

Ironically, perhaps, is that more Eastern Panhandle lawmakers voted against the table games measure than voted for it.

Voting for the bill in the House of Delegates were Dels. John Doyle and Locke Wysong, both D-Jefferson, according to The Associated Press.

Voting against the final bill in the House were Del. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; Del. Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan; Del. Walter Duke, R-Berkeley; Del. Johnathan Miller, R-Berkeley; Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley; and Del. Robert Tabb, D-Jefferson, the AP reported.

In the Senate, John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, voted against the bill Thursday, while Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson/Berkeley, voted for its passage, according to the AP.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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