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Debate wages on over table games' defeat

June 10, 2007|By Dave McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA.

Jefferson County's casino table games referendum is over, but the level of debate stayed high Sunday as a Charles Town Races & Slots official lashed out at opponents like Del. John Doyle and Shepherdstown, W.Va., residents over the defeat of the games.

John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns the local thoroughbred track, said he thinks the concerns that track officials raised about increasing gambling competition from other states will become clear when Maryland starts getting serious about allowing slot machines.

Then it will be a situation of "I told you so" and county residents, "including the people of Shepherdstown," will realize the serious threat of competition to the local track, said Finamore, referring to the strong opposition to the games from Shepherdstown.

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Voters in all three Shepherdstown precincts - the Shepherdstown Men's Club (precinct 33), Shepherdstown Elementary School (precinct 34) and the Shepherdstown Fire Department (precinct 35), overwhelmingly rejected the games.

Turning his attention to Doyle, who said before the election that Jefferson County needs to hold out for a better deal on table games, Finamore said he is waiting.

"I'm waiting to see what he's coming back with. He talked about that in the campaign. He needs to put up now," said Finamore, who acknowledged that his comments are "dripping with sarcasm" because he believes a better deal will not materialize.

Track owners said they needed casino table games like blackjack and roulette to stave off gambling competition from other states and they were prepared to begin operating at least 75 gaming tables.

But Jefferson County voters had other ideas, casting 5,626 "no" votes in Saturday's referendum compared to 4,429 votes for the games, according to complete but unofficial results. Some political observers were surprised by the number of people who voted. The 10,055 votes cast represented about 31 percent of the county's 32,377 registered voters.

Finamore said he and track officials have a lot of questions about the referendum's defeat and added that track officials will sit down this week to determine how it happened.

One issue that merits close examination is that the election results did not conform with the outcome of the track's pre-election polling, Finamore said.

Track officials talked to thousands of county residents through telephone polls and door-to-door interviews and felt good about the feedback, Finamore said.

Finamore said one possible explanation for the defeat is that while the opposition was eager to vote, the people who said they would support it did not get out to the polls.

Finamore said he thinks supporters looked at the casino table games bill that was passed in the last session of the Legislature and felt it was a "no-brainer. I think there was a complacency there."

John Maxey, a county resident who watches politics closely, said complacency is always a possible issue on either side of an election. Maxey said what is interesting is that turnout in Saturday's election exceeded 30 percent, which is "pretty phenomenal. Turnout was strong on both sides," Maxey said.

Finamore said he does not know what the track's next step might be in regard to the games.

Doyle, D-Jefferson, had a long list of reasons why county voters should reject table games, including his belief that the county would not get a fair share of the revenues.

Jefferson County Schools would have received about $1.5 million from table games, and the county government and local towns receive about $7.6 million a year in slot machine revenue, but Doyle pointed out before the election that the state receives about $171 million from slots at Charles Town.

In response to Finamore's statement that he is waiting for Doyle to get a better deal, Doyle said he did not guarantee a better deal.

Doyle said he simply said there is going to have to be a better deal on table games in order for county residents to approve them. The track can ask for another referendum on the games in two years.

"This deal isn't good enough," Doyle said Sunday.

Doyle said a better deal does not have to come in the form of a rewrite of the table games law. The Legislature could look at other ways to increase local teacher salaries, an issue that got mingled with the table games debate at times.

There was concern among county residents about the traffic that could be generated from table games, and Doyle said he could tell the issue resonated with voters.

"This was a citizen uprising," Doyle said.

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