Casino License Bill Up For Vote

WHEELING – West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler expects his bill to reduce annual table gambling license fees for the state’s four casinos to pass out of the chamber today.

As the bill was amended and passed by the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, it will no longer make purchasing new slot machines more expensive in exchange for reducing the annual table gambling fees for the tracks from $2.5 million to $1.5 million.

“It will take the money from the fund for lottery administrative fees,” Kessler said of the $4 million reduction in funding for senior citizen health care that will be created by lowering the fee for all four casinos.

Kessler, D-Marshall, originally proposed reducing the annual fee for table gambling for Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort in Chester and the Mardi Gras West Virginia Casino & Hotel near Charleston from $2.5 million to $1.5 million.

He had planned to maintain the $2.5 million fee for the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, citing that facility’s extraordinary profitability compared to the others.

That measure – which would have reduced the amount collected from the fees to $7 million – would have covered the gap by diverting $3 million from the purse funds for thoroughbred and greyhound breeders. However, an amendment by Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, would have replaced the lost funding by taking it from subsidies on new slot machines, thus making them more expensive for Wheeling Island and other casinos.

Kessler and Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, said the bill now would provide the fee reduction for all four tracks – but for just one year.

“This is a short-term fix for a long-term problem,” Fitzsimmons said.

Jim Simms, outgoing president and general manager of the Wheeling Island facility, said the track may not renew its table gambling license in July if the annual fee is not reduced because the Wheeling facility is on pace to run its tables at a $1 million operating loss in 2013.

He said the track has 105 employees whose jobs are directly tied to table gambling.

“We really appreciate the support from the senators who recognize our situation. We really have been impacted by the out-of-state competition and need some immediate relief,” Simms said upon learning of the Tuesday developments.

The legislative session ends April 13, but bills must be out of their chambers of origin by the end of today. A version must pass in both the Senate and House of Delegates before it can be signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Kessler recognizes the competition Mountain State casinos will face moving forward, so he wants to evaluate how the money drawn from them is distributed.

“We need to look at the distribution of all the gaming monies we have in the state – who is getting what, when, where and why,” he said.

Under state law, the West Virginia Lottery Commission directed at least $92 million in subsidies to greyhound and thoroughbred breeders during fiscal 2012, according to commission spokesman Randy Burnside.