Budget Going to the Dogs?
Four points about state Senate President Mitch Carmichael’s proposal, outlined in his op-ed elsewhere on this page:
– I think Carmichael, R-Jackson, likes $14 million at least as much as he likes dogs.
– By January, some other legislators will share his feeling about $14 million.
– Ohio County residents will not.
– It isn’t really $14 million.
Carmichael wants to renew a push to eliminate what many lawmakers view as subsidies for the state’s two greyhound racing tracks. One is part of Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack. The other is at a similar casino in Cross Lanes, just outside Charleston. He figures that would provide $14 million a year in new money for the state budget.
We’ll get back to that in a moment. First, to your question: Gov. Jim Justice says everything is going swimmingly in West Virginia. Why do we need another $14 million?
Maybe we don’t. We’ll have a better idea in about two weeks. But, as I began pointing out even before the current fiscal year began July 1, lawmakers and the governor have approved a lot of new spending — and they ought to be concerned there won’t be enough revenue to cover it.
After July and August, the first two months of fiscal 2020, state government had collected $49.8 million less than expected for the general revenue fund and $37.6 million less for the state road fund. If that trend persists, we’re in deep trouble. Once September revenue reports are in, sometime early next month, we’ll have a better idea.
Even the governor seems to be concerned. A few days ago, MetroNews reported that state agency heads have been asked to come up with a plan to reduce spending by 4.6%. It’s being developed just in case.
Legislators can amend the budget. Still, finding more money to pump into it is an attractive option for many of them.
Hence the appeal to some of keeping the $14 million in state coffers rather than handing it out to the dog tracks and greyhound breeders.
It was tried once before, in 2017. Then, the House of Delegates voted 56-44 to cut the support, with the state Senate under Carmichael agreeing, 19-15. Justice made a special trip to Wheeling to announced he was vetoing the bill.
Supporters of the funding argue it is not really state money but, instead, funds collected from the tracks’ gambling operations, then merely returned to help greyhound racing. The same argument is made regarding support for horse racing in Chester and Charles Town — though the sport’s lobby clearly is more powerful than the dog folks. No one has suggested eliminating the thoroughbred support — yet.
Eliminating the state support probably would kill the dog racing industry. Here in the Northern Panhandle alone, it is responsible for as many as 1,700 jobs, according to one study.
I take that research with a large grain of salt. But even assuming the number is greatly exaggerated, a lot of people would be hurt by killing the sport. Even one-fourth of the study’s estimate means 425 people would lose their jobs.
The economies in Ohio and Kanawha counties would suffer, though, clearly, the damage would be much worse here. Let’s hope legislators from other regions take that into account — and wonder how votes to eliminate the sport might affect their counties the next time they need Northern Panhandle delegates’ and senators’ support for something affecting their constituents.
Eliminating hundreds of jobs and reducing the attractiveness of the two casinos with dog tracks would reduce state revenue, too. The net gain for Charleston would be substantially less than $14 million.
One thing about the situation, though: Justice owes Carmichael a very big thank-you. The governor is up for re-election next year. How many votes do you suppose a pledge to veto the dog racing money bill again would be worth to him?
Myer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.