W.Va. Legislature Votes to Eliminate Breeders Fund

Bill Goes Before Governor Jim ?Justice to Sign or Veto

Cutout at Track (2)

WHEELING — A bill to eliminate the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund passed the House of Delegates Saturday despite the efforts of local delegates and supporters and greyhound breeders present at the Capitol in Charleston.

The bill also eliminates a longstanding requirement that greyhound tracks continue to offer racing in order to maintain their video lottery or table game licenses. The measure next moves on to Gov. Jim Justice’s desk, and would not become official until receiving his signature.

Grant Herring, a spokesman for Gov. Jim Justice, said the governor’s office is still reviewing the legislation.

“The governor doesn’t want to hurt the dog racing industry. The governor’s budget plan protects dog racing,” Herring said in an email Saturday.

Delegate Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, chairman of the House Finance Committee, said in closing debate on the bill that the issue of taking the money from greyhound breeders came down to priorities the Legislature must consider as it addresses a projected $450 million shortfall in next year’s budget.

The alternatives are to make serious cuts to other areas that will also have effects on many West Virginians, he said.

“It’s very difficult this year,” Nelson said.

“I mean this budget … dog gone it. There is not one easy decision with this thing.”

Senate Bill 437 passed with a vote of 56-44 following more than an hour and a half of debate. The only Northern Panhandle to vote in favor was Delegate William “Roger” Romine, R-Tyler.

“It was a tough decision,” Romine said. “I just felt rather than being a regional issue, it was a statewide budget issue. In order to get a balanced budget, I just felt I had to do what was right. For the good of the budget, it was necessary to do that.”

Northern Panhandle delegates voting against the measure were Patrick McGeehan and Mark Zatezalo, both R-Hancock; Phil Diserio, D-Brooke; Erikka Storch, R-Ohio; Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio; Mike Ferro and Joe Canestraro, both D-Marshall; and David Pethtel, D-Wetzel.

SB 437 would discontinue the West Virginia Racing Commission’s special account known as the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund, which is expected to pay out an estimated $13.2 million to dog breeders this year. It would transfer the balance of the fund into the State Excess Lottery Account for distribution by the legislature beginning July 1.

Opponents of the legislation disagree with some who term the fund a “subsidy” for the industry, saying people who never gamble in the state’s casinos don’t pay anything into the fund. Instead, the money that goes into the account is paid by the tracks that have dog racing, and amounts to 1.5 percent of video lottery revenue generated at the tracks.

A total of $1 million would be withheld from the breeders fund transfer and deposited into an account used to promote greyhound adoption programs and provide other assistance to breeders under SB 437.

Under the legislation dog racing is “decoupled” from video lottery gambling, and tracks with casinos would no longer be required to offer dog racing as a requirement for operating video lottery machines or table games.

It also would allow the tracks to operate video lottery machines and table games at another location in their respective counties with approval by the State Lottery Commission, but they would be limited to having just one gambling location at a time.

Nelson and other proponents of the bill noted greyhound racing itself wasn’t eliminated by the bill, and live and simulcast bets could continue at tracks if greyhound racing were eliminated.

West Virginia has two greyhound racing tracks — Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, and the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Cross Lanes, W.Va.

Local delegates spoke of the economic impact the loss of the greyhound breeders industry would have on all municipalities in West Virginia — which receive a portion of all gambling and lottery revenue received.

Storch, during remarks on the House Floor, referenced the “Iowa Study,” which found in states where greyhound racing was eliminated, overall tax revenue from gambling decreased 20 percent.

Also speaking on the economic impact of greyhound racing on communities were McGeehan, Diserio, Fluharty, Ferro and Canestraro as well as Delegates Mike Caputo, D-Marion; Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia; Michael Folk, R-Berkeley; and Justin Marcum, D-Mingo.

Delegates Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia; and Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell; spoke in favor of SB 437, saying they did not believe there would be a 20-percent loss in the gambling tax revenue given to municipalities. When asked to yield to questioning by Fluharty, both declined to do so.

Fluharty isn’t certain the matter is settled yet, as the bill now awaits a signature from Justice.

“Today’s vote is a reflection of everything that is wrong with politics,” he said. “Republican leadership just pushed through a bill to kill 1,700 jobs and millions in revenue during a budget crisis. They did so by postponing action on the bill all week in order to influence their members. I am confident the governor will veto the bill, as it is not part of his budget plan and he knows the pain it will cause on not just our budget but also families in this state.”

McGeehan also disagreed with the methods of GOP leadership in the Legislature.

City Editor Ian Hicks contributed to this story.

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