A bad bet for WV for the next millennium

By Delegate John Overington

One issue stands out among all the other issues of the 1999 Legislative session -- that of gambling. It came from many directions: from the dog and horse tracks, from those pushing super bingo, from West Virginia’s premier hotel, and from those pushing gray machines. It was a David vs. Goliath confrontation; the citizens of West Virginia vs. the special interest groups.

Gambling Lobbyists Under The Gold Dome

On one side we have West Virginia’s 1.8 million working men and women, families, children, retirees, scattered across the state who spent the last 60 days going to work, to church, with their families and friends. On the other hand we had the gambling lobbyists circling the rotunda, and committee rooms under the golden dome of the capital. It was not an even match. The lobbyists had done their homework. They had been generous during the last campaign. And they had had a half dozen years to get it perfected.

From a dozen years ago when no legislators wanted to be associated with casino gambling even if it was put on the ballot statewide to 1999 when a majority of legislators were willing to open the barn door through a southern county is a remarkable transition.

Tracks Get Casino Gambling Slot Machines

The largest impact to the citizens will be the coin drop changes at the four race tracks and the population centers near them. This completes the transition from video lottery terminals to casino gambling slot machines. Although it was sold in the legislature as just a minor change, the tracks themselves acknowledged the scope of this change.

Charles Town Races marketing director Bill Bork described the new proposed machines as a "totally different product." And as Tri-State Greyhound Park’s director of racetrack operation Dan Adkins stated, "The transition into coin drop is basically just the next step." The Kanawha County track along with the others is steadily seeing the focus changed from racing to slot machine gambling.

Although some claimed this is not an expansion of gambling since the number of machines would not necessarily increase, the additional projection in revenues of $30 million dollars told a different story. The legislature rejected even giving the voters in the affected counties a vote, saying it might cause communities to have controversial elections.

State Gambling Addiction?

For the first time the West Virginia Legislature increased gambling in the state, not to save tracks from closings as was the rationale for bringing video lottery to the tracks several years ago, but to increase state revenues and to make the tracks more competitive while they brought in more revenues. Those additional gambling dollars will come to the state’s coffer at the expense of many West Virginians. With gambling you inevitably have winners and losers.

The irony is that while we are fighting the tobacco industry and its addiction especially among young people, we are expanding gambling and the inevitable gambling addiction that can have an even more adverse effect on many of our citizens and their quality of life.

Buying the Election

Letting the county voters make the decision was also part of the battle cry for the Greenbrier casino. However when it came to the race tracks, the cry was just the opposite -- no citizens’ vote to decide this "totally different product". And it is easy to see why. Jefferson County was the only county to reject the gambling scheme the first time around in 1994. They did it on a 53% to 47% vote the first time despite being outspent about $74,258.01 to $5000. The second time around, the track did not take any chances.. They spent $524,241.79 to the opposition’s $5607.19 and won by a 64% to 36% margin. That is over half a million dollars and translated into approximately $65 per vote! By opposing the referendum they saved big bucks and avoided the trauma of dividing the community.

But it was a different story for the Greenbrier. Let the voters decide there. Although the Greenbrier management had consistently said the three problems they had were January, February, and March when business is slow, they opposed limiting gambling to just those three months. Interestingly enough that might have better solved the winter layoff problem by getting the gambler to come to the Greenbrier during the winter rather than the summer. As one Methodist minster said, the problem is winter and cold weather. The wealthy potential clientele would rather be in the Bahamas or the French Rivera during the cold months. Gambling won’t change the weather.

Social Cost of Gambling

During the discussion there were no shortages of examples of the impact of gambling addiction on the lives of men and women and families. As former South Carolina Governor Beasley said for every dollar the state takes in there are three dollars of social costs. This includes everything from domestic violence, suicide, higher welfare costs, addiction treatment, high school dropout rates, higher auto thefts, rapes, and other crime, increased bankruptcies, and the list goes on. Will West Virginia somehow be different from the other areas that have legalize gambling? Don’t bet on it.

West Virginia is now starting to rely more and more on gambling revenues to balance its budget. This will give the gambling industry even greater leverage to further expand gambling.

Gambling dominated this recent 60-day legislative session all the way to the closing hour on Saturday night, March 13. The gambling interest had put in too much money to not fight to the end, switching their coin drop proposal from bill to bill until it finally passed in the final minutes. In this frenzy, a number of good bill were lost.

Where Is the Gambling Line Being Drawn?

Questions remain. Is this the end of the gambling push or just the beginning? How much of a role did money, including campaign contributions, play in this steamroller effort? In my statement on the House floor, I requested that if legislators felt compelled to vote "yes" that they make a commitment to make this the last "yes" on gambling. Will the legislative leadership, who obviously played a key role in overcoming hurdles for the gambling forces, draw a line where we are now or will they allow this slow and not-so-slow expansion to continue?

Possible things the gambling industry may advocate for the future include an effort to make the four tracks like casinos with roulette and card games, and moving the gambling to hotel lobbies from the track areas, gambling for non-hotel guests and better percentages for the Greenbrier and tracks.

Final questions...Is West Virginia really the end goal of the gambling industry, or are we an intermediate step to bring gambling to the states with larger populations and cites? Will Maryland and Pennsylvania gambling advocates simply use West Virginia to get gambling proposals passed in their states? For example: Why should Pittsburgh residents be spending all that money in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle when Pennsylvania residents could be keeping that revenue for their own schools, seniors citizens, etc.? Why should Baltimore and Washington area residents be spending their gambling dollars in the Eastern Panhandle when that revenue could be staying in Maryland?


Delegate John Overington (R-54) is a 15-year member of the House of Delegates from Berkeley County -- 491 Hoffman Road, Martinsburg, WV 25401 (304) 274-1791 --