CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate is lining up to vote on a bill that would cut financial support for greyhound racing at two West Virginia tracks.
The Senate Finance Committee voted 10-6 Monday afternoon to move the bill to the Senate floor.
The bill would affect Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino & Resort in Cross Lanes. The state has been taking in money from gaming and then redirecting it to support greyhound racing.
A fiscal note from the state Racing Commission concludes that if that practice stopped then $17 million would flow to the State Excess Lottery Fund for appropriation by the Legislature.
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In a Monday afternoon Senate Finance Committee meeting, lawmakers from the Northern Panhandle contended the Wheeling area, in particular, would be harmed economically by passage of the bill.
“This is extremely concerning and disturbing, this whole bill,” said Senator Mike Maroney, R-Marshall. “It’s embarrassing. I’m actually embarrassed to be part of the majority party when stuff like this comes up.
“If there was a dog track in the Eastern Panhandle we wouldn’t be talking about his. I promise you that.”
Maroney later proposed an amendment that would have eliminated a similar funding mechanism affecting horse racing at two West Virginia tracks. His amendment was defeated.
“We shouldn’t pick winners and losers here. If we’re going to take it away from the dogs, we take it from the horses,” Maroney said.
Senator Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, said greyhound racing and activity at Wheeling Island is an economic generator for the area. Moreover, he contended that the end of greyhound racing in other states has increased activity in West Virginia.
“This would be a knockout blow if we were to lose this industry in our area,” Ihlenfeld said.
Steve Sarras, president of the state Kennel Owners Association, said West Virginia could capture the market now that greyhound racing has been phased out in most other states.
“You guys are being hoodwinked. This state is being hoodwinked. The whole industry does not need to be scrapped. It might need a tuneup,” Sarras said.
Robert Herron, the city manager in Wheeling, spoke before the committee and said Wheeling Island is a major contributor to the city’s tax increment financing district.
He said that when table games were first allowed at Wheeling Island, they were viewed as complementary to the racing already taking place there.
“The referendum was sold as a complete package, adding table gaming to the experience at the property,” Herron said.
He took exception to the use of the word “subsidy” to describe the financial support for greyhound racing.
“It’s not a subsidy. It’s revenue generated by customers at the casino and then it goes back to dog racing,” Herron said.
Senator Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said he has listened with an open mind because he does not represent a district with greyhound racing. But he said the fact that greyhound racing couldn’t survive without financial support sealed his vote in favor of the bill.
He said the tracks shouldn’t have to keep greyhound racing.
“The part that I just can’t get past is that you would have an employer be required to operate a portion of their business that they would determine to be unprofitable,” Tarr said.
The Legislature passed a bill two years ago to end financial support for greyhound racing, but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice during a trip to Wheeling.
Last week, responding to questions by MetroNews, Justice indicated he is still weighing what he would do if this bill is passed this year.
“Where there’s this much level of smoke there’s got to be fire somewhere. You look across the country, and there are so many tracks that have closed from the standpoint of the dogs. And the primary complaint has to be centered around the care for those animals and everything,” Justice said.
“If, in fact, that is a legitimate issue I don’t want West Virginia to be the last harbor of dog racing.”
But he said he would also consider the economic effects of greyhound racing.
“Our dogs provide us entertainment and they provide us tourism and they provide us many, many things — especially in cities like Wheeling or wherever — and we want to protect that. We want to have that, and everything.”
Senator Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, spoke against the bill Monday morning on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”