CHARLESTON — Wheeling cannot afford to lose greyhound racing at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and the tax revenue it brings in, Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron told the state Senate Finance Committee Monday, as the city continues to suffer from the loss of Ohio Valley Medical Center.
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The committee, though, passed through Senate Bill 285 by a 10-6 vote. The bill would eliminate the fund that contributes to the purses for greyhound racing at two state casinos –Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras Casino in Kanawha County. The bill will be up for first reading in the Senate Wednesday.
SB 285 would eliminate the fund by July 1. The bill was introduced on Jan. 21 by Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. If passed by the Legislature, the bill would eliminate the nearly $17 million transfer from wagers on table games and video lottery machines to the fund. Instead, SB 285 would transfer that funding to the Excess Lottery Revenue Fund for distribution by the Legislature.
The bill would decouple the two casinos that offer greyhound racing — Mardi Gras and Wheeling Island. Voters in both counties approved table games in 2007, but only as long as the casinos had racing.
Additionally, the bill would use the remaining money in the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund for the following: $3 million to retrain workers in the greyhound industries in the state, $1 million to promote adoption of greyhounds used at the two racetracks, and a one-time, $500 tax credit for West Virginians who adopt a greyhound, which sunsets July 1, 2023.
Speaking before the committee, Herron said with the recent job losses at Ohio Valley Medical Center, anything that deteriorates the amenities that Wheeling Island offers could be “catastrophic” to Wheeling.
“The (Wheeling Island Casino) itself is a large employer for the city of Wheeling, one of the largest employers, and one of our largest taxpayers,” Herron said. “The short term would obviously be an impact on the city’s budget for revenue directly from dog racing.”
Steve Sarras, president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association, said the breeders fund is not a taxpayer subsidy; it’s solely funded through the table games and video lottery wagers. Sarras said eliminating the fund will cause the greyhound tracks to either close or reduce the number of races, causing massive layoffs. A study done by West Virginia University in 2014 found there were about 1,000 direct jobs from greyhound racing in Wheeling alone.
“You’re not going to retrain these workers,” Sarras said. “They don’t have high school degrees, they don’t have college degrees. They’re going to lose everything. It’s going to cause unemployment, foreclosures on homes. Bankruptcies, so just not a good bill in my opinion.”
In 2017, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 437, discontinuing the state Greyhound Breeding Development Fund. That bill was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice in a ceremony at Wheeling Island Casino.
State senators Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, and William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, spoke against the bill, saying the fund’s elimination would be a hit to the Ohio Valley.
“This is extremely concerning and disturbing, this bill and the fact it keeps coming up,” Maroney said. “I am actually embarrassed to be part of the majority party when stuff like this comes up, when legislation like this comes up to stop something without thinking of the … local economic impact of an area.”
“This would be catastrophic to the city of Wheeling,” Ihlenfeld said. “We just took a large punch in the gut with the closing of one of largest employers … this would be a knockout blow if this were to happen and we were to lose this industry in our area. We can’t afford in the city of Wheeling to let this happen.”
Richie Heath, a lobbyist for GREY2K, said the pro-greyhound organization is for the bill, noting that the bill does not eliminate greyhound racing, but would allow greyhound racing to stand or fall on its own. According to GREY2K, five states have done away with greyhound racing over the last several years, with Florida the most recent state. West Virginia will have two of the last six remaining tracks in the country.
“We think this legislation was warranted because a clear trend nationwide is that states are getting out of the greyhound racing industry,” Heath said. “We are also the only state that actually sets aside state gambling revenues to maintain the racing industry.”
Senate Finance Committee Vice Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said he had issues with current state code that required the Mardi Gras and Wheeling Island to maintain greyhound racing in order to keep table games at the casinos.
“I don’t have a dog in this fight; it’s not in my district,” Tarr said. “The part I just can’t get past is you’d have an employer be required to operate a portion of their business they’d determine is unprofitable. That’s where I get hung up on the whole thing.”
According to the West Virginia Racing Commission, Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras saw a 13 percent drop in live in-person wagers on races between 2014 and 2018. In contrast, the total handle — the money generated for greyhound racing — has increased by 19% at both casinos during the same period due to betting from outside the state on greyhound races.