In bits and pieces, full-scale legalized gambling came to West Virginia during a period of about 26 years. It started with a ticket-based state lottery and moved slowly but surely up to flashy, Las Vegas-style casinos with table gambling and thousands of "video lottery" machines in bars, stores and clubs throughout the state.
Since Mountain State residents took the plunge, legalized gambling has fed about $6.8 billion into the coffers of local and state governments, with Charleston taking the overwhelming majority of the proceeds. During the last fiscal year alone, nearly $600 million in gambling proceeds went to government at all levels.
So from a purely financial standpoint, it has been a good run. But our luck is running out. Most surrounding states either have legalized casino gambling or are in the process of doing so. Already, some casinos are feeling the pinch from competition.
Reaction to that also has come in bits and pieces. First, state legislators set up a fund to help the four racetracks authorized to operate video gambling. The program helps them buy new and improved gambling machines.
Now, lawmakers are considering giving casinos a break on the fee they must pay for the privilege of operating table gambling. The fate of that measure, which may already have been killed, will be decided this week.
To our knowledge, the state has no long-range plan for legalized gambling. We doubt seriously if most legislators have considered the questions of how to battle competition from other states for gamblers' dollars or how to replace lost revenue in the state budget.
Rest assured, executives at the big companies that operate casinos in Wheeling, Chester, Cross Lanes and Charles Town have thought about how their West Virginia facilities fit into long-term corporate strategies.
West Virginia needs to do the same thing, with a comprehensive, top-to-bottom study of the future of gambling. That could help us avoid costly mistakes. At least it could prepare us for ultimatums such as that issued by Wheeling Island Hotel-Racetrack-Casino concerning table gambling.
Not enough thought went into building the legalized gambling empire in West Virginia. More needs to be dedicated to managing its decline. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislators should commission a comprehensive, realistic study of the issue.