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Lawmakers overwhelmingly pass table games bill

June 02, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- In a special session Tuesday, West Virginia lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill that could entice Jefferson County voters to approve the addition of table games at Charles Town Races & Slots.

With Gov. Joe Manchin's signature on House Bill 102 assured, the only question that remains is whether voters will take the bait, assuming it's offered to them.

Racetrack owner Penn National Gaming Inc. has not set a deadline to decide whether to pursue a second referendum on table games, which include blackjack and roulette, according to John Finamore, the company's senior vice president for regional operations.

"We'll run the referendum when the residents tell us it's time," Finamore said Tuesday evening. "Seriously, we don't have any plans."

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The legislation increases the local share of table game revenue that Jefferson County would receive to 5 percent, if voters eventually approve the gaming expansion.

That would translate into about $5 million annually for the county, according to state projections, state Sen. Herb Snyder said Tuesday evening.

HB 102 passed the House of Delegates Tuesday on a 74-23 vote, followed by a 30-2 vote in the state Senate, according to Snyder, D-Jefferson/Berkeley, and Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, who pushed for the legislation's passage in the regular session earlier this year.

Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, and state Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, whose district includes a portion of Berkeley County, voted against the bill, Doyle said.

"I think there is a very good chance that voters will pass it now," said Doyle, who added that he would no longer oppose table games at Charles Town Races & Slots.

If Charles Town does not get table gaming, Snyder predicted Tuesday that slots in Maryland would take away a lot of the revenue the county and municipalities have been receiving.

"It may very well be replacing money that is lost in slots machines in the state of Maryland," Snyder said. "We will be fortunate if we can keep the levels that we have now."

Doyle discouraged voters from paying attention to Maryland's foray into gaming and instead decide whether the increase in local share, which he said is more than double the percentage provided for the 2006 law, is fair.

The bill passed Tuesday corrected a flaw in the 2006 law that would have left Jefferson County's school board with only 2.2 percent of the table games revenue, instead of 3 percent as intended, Doyle said.

In addition to 3 percent for the school board, HB 102 also provides 1 percent of revenue for the county commission and another 1 percent to be divided among the county's five municipalities.

If voters approve table games, the additional revenue would be used to help with growth-related school building needs and "put us in a position to reduce the tax burden of voters," Board of Education President Peter Dougherty said.

"I think one of the reasons that we lost two years ago was because a lot of the residents thought it wasn't a good deal," Finamore said Tuesday. "This (bill), I hope addresses this concern of theirs."

In other action Tuesday, the legislature passed a bill that allows all counties in the state to restrict the location of exotic entertainment businesses, such as strip clubs.

The bill effectively allows Berkeley County, which does not have zoning, to reinstate a 2004 zoning-like ordinance for strip clubs that was deemed invalid last year in circuit court.

Current state law prevents counties that do not have zoning, but have a planning commission in place, from adopting such an ordinance. Counties without a planning commission, meanwhile, have been allowed to adopt restrictions.

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