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Table games bill included in special session

May 29, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Legislation that could make table games at Charles Town Races & Slots more attractive to Jefferson County voters has new life.

The bill was one of 11 that West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin included Friday on an agenda he issued for a special session of the legislature expected to begin next week after lawmakers finish work on the budget.

A vote on the coming year's budget is expected Sunday, according to state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, one of 12 lawmakers appointed to hammer out final details of the spending plan.

Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson/Berkeley, said he expects the governor's version of the table games bill to be the same proposal that sailed through the state Senate on a 33-1 vote in the regular session in April, only to die in the House of Delegates.

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"It comes as no surprise," Snyder said of the legislation's resurrection. "I know the governor was very interested in the bill during the session, as was the Senate."

Snyder said House Speaker Richard Thompson told him within minutes after the bill died that he was willing to consider it in special session.

Senate Bill 718 proposed the local share of table games revenue be increased to 5 percent from 3 percent for the four West Virginia counties that have racetracks. Voters in Jefferson County rejected table games in a 2007 referendum, leaving Charles Town Races & Slots as the only racetrack without cards, dice and other casino games.

If the bill passes and voters eventually approve table games, the Jefferson County Commission would receive 1 percent of the revenue generated by the gaming expansion, the county's five municipalities would share the other percent and the Jefferson County Board of Education would receive the 3 percent in revenue provided for in the 2006 table games law.

Unger said he would welcome additional money for the Eastern Panhandle that would be generated by table games at Charles Town, but will leave it up to the voters to decide if they want to expand gambling at the local racetrack.

"I'm not going to push it," Unger said.

"They'll double whatever (table game revenue) they're bringing in now" to the state coffers if the games are added at Charles Town, he said.

Jefferson County's share of the revenue would still be "peanuts" compared to that amount, he said.

Unger and Snyder said a bill regulating the location of strip clubs and other "exotic" entertainment could make it on to the governor's special session call before lawmakers.

As of 1 p.m. Friday, Unger said it was penciled in on a list of bills that Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin shared with him.

A bonding issue for higher education institutions, including Shepherd University, also was on the list, Unger said.

In the draft of the budget being printed for lawmakers to review today are allocations "of not less than $150,000" for commuter services in the Eastern Panhandle for MARC, and $100,000 for the Sesquicentennial Commission to plan events celebrating the 150th anniversary of John Brown's Raid this year in Harpers Ferry, and subsequent Civil War era events, Unger said.

"I'm still trying to get some money for (improving traffic conditions at the) intersection in Inwood (W.Va.)," Unger said. "That's been a high priority for me."

As a budget conferee for the first time, Unger said he has been able "play offense" for his region's benefit, but added he also has found himself fending off potential spending cuts.

"It's an eye-opening experience," said Unger, describing the opportunity as an honor, but also one the Eastern Panhandle deserves, whether it be him or any other area lawmaker at the table.

"It gives you a greater appreciation of the budget," he said.

Other proposed general revenue appropriations in the budget draft are $5.8 million for increased enrollment that will support the Eastern Panhandle's fast-growing school districts; nearly $2.9 million for Blue Ridge Community and Technical College; $10.7 million for Shepherd University (through the Higher Education Policy Commission) and other $100,000 for the University's gateway program, Unger said. The college's Civil War center also is slated to receive a little more than $50,000.

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