Charleston – Following an emotional debate Monday, the West Virginia Senate Finance Committee advanced a bill that would eliminate state funding that goes to the greyhound racing industry.
In an interview afterward, Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, a sponsor of the legislation, said that the state gives about $17 million annually to the industry, which he said is unprofitable. He also noted that the money, which is put into a state fund called the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund, comes from taxes on casino activities.
A fiscal note attached to the bill doesn't account for any revenue loss from fewer visitors to the state, but says the bill could cost the state up to $1.7 million. That is an estimate of how much the state could pay by giving people tax breaks if they adopt greyhounds.
"It was actually sponsored by President Carmichael," Roberts said, referring to Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, "and I co-sponsored that with the understanding that basically what we were doing was propping up and supporting a failing industry."
Roberts, who voted for the bill in committee, said that although he has mixed feelings about the bill, he will continue to support it.
He noted that some advocates for the industry have argued that as dog tracks close across the country, West Virginia could become a destination for racing enthusiasts. And he said that dog track workers must take decent care of the dogs, as they need them to be healthy enough to race.
But he said that while his "heart went out" to the people of Wheeling, supporting the bill is the "overall right thing to do." He said it was unfortunate that the fund was set up in the first place.
"It's almost like a little deal that's been worked up for years to sustain and prop up the industry," he said.
West Virginia has two dog tracks, one at Mardi Gras Casino in Cross Lanes and one at Wheeling Island Casino in Wheeling.
Senators representing the Northern Panhandle spoke against the bill during the meeting.
"It’s embarrassing," said Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall. "I’m actually embarrassed to be part of the majority party when stuff like this comes up, when legislation comes up to decrease, to stop something without caring about the societal or local economic impact of an area but just because they have grudges to pay back or maybe they don’t like families involved or whatever the reason may be.”
The mother of former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, operated a kennel in Logan County, and his nephew, Carl Tomblin II, assumed operation of the kennel after her death, according to MetroNews.
Johnna Gaunch, a lobbyist representing the Humane Association of the United States, said that group supports the bill. She said that it is standard practice in the industry to keep dogs in 36-by-36-by-42-inch cages for the majority of the day – up to 20 hours. Under questioning, she said she hadn't been to any West Virginia dog tracks.
She said that "because of the conditions and because of the profit, it's very cruel and actually leads to a lot of injury and death of animals."
Maroney asked if the Humane Society had a position on horse racing. She told him it has never opposed horse racing and generally doesn't take a position on it, but does support jockey club reforms at the federal level.
"Have you ever seen anybody sit on the back of a dog and smack 'em with a whip a hundred times when they're running around the track?" Maroney asked.
"I would say that horses and dogs are two very different animals and you can't compare," she said.
"Maybe it's a bigger business, maybe that's why," he told her.
Steve Sarras, president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association, said he had moved from Massachusetts, after the industry shut down there, to work in the industry here.
"It's very short-sighted to cannibalize and destroy an industry and I haven't even talked about the individuals who work in and rely on the industry," he said. "Some of these people you're not going to retrain. They don't have high school degrees. They don't have college degrees. They're going to lose everything."
He said lawmakers were being "hoodwinked" by lobbyists.
"I'm nervous," he said. "I'm shaking because I know my people's livelihoods depend on my testimony and depend on your votes."
Senators voted for the bill, 10-6.
Gov. Jim Justice vetoed a similar bill in 2017. This year's version includes a provision to give $3 million toward retraining dog track workers and $500 tax credits to people who adopt greyhounds up until Jan. 1, 2023.