By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislation to eliminate a $15 million a year state subsidy to greyhound racing purses passed the Senate by a narrow 19-15 margin Monday, with opponents contending elimination of greyhound racing could have devastating economic impacts, particularly in the Wheeling area.
“We might save money today at the expense of an entire valley,” said Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, who gave a lengthy floor speech imploring senators to vote against the measure (SB 437).
He said eliminating state subsidies for greyhound purses would eliminate hundreds of industry jobs, and would cost the city of Wheeling much-needed tax revenue from the Wheeling Island greyhound track.
“We’re essentially doing away with an entire industry,” Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, added. “These are small, family-run farms and businesses.”
The number of persons employed in greyhound racing in the state has been a matter of dispute.
Industry representatives have cited 1,700 greyhound racing jobs, while a 2015 study commissioned by the Legislature determined there were 618 individuals directly employed in the industry, either full- or part-time. According to the state Racing Commission, there are a total of 516 current greyhound racing licenses, required of greyhound owners, and by trainers and kennel employees who work at the tracks on racing days.
Proponents of the measure questioned whether the state should continue to prop up what they called a dying sport, particularly at a time when the Legislature is looking at having to make spending cuts to public education, higher education and health care to address a $500 million state budget deficit.
“Dog racing’s popularity has gone to the dogs. It has nose-dived in recent years,” Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, said. “West Virginia’s future is not in subsidizing money-losing ventures like this.”
The 2015 study by Spectrum Gaming Group concluded that the racing subsidies, which come from a surcharge on casino video lottery profits, account for about 95 percent of total racing purses, as live wagering and attendance at greyhound races at the two tracks has plummeted from their peak popularity in the mid-1980s.
Previous legislative attempts to de-fund the greyhound racing subsidy have failed. Some of the previous attempts included buyout provisions for greyhound owners and kennel operators. Those are not included in the current bill, which would end the purse subsidies on June 30.
The current bill does set aside $1 million to provide care for former racing greyhounds in no-kill kennels, and to promote their adoption as pets.
Under the bill, the two greyhound racetrack casinos would no longer have to offer live greyhound racing as a requirement to maintain state video lottery and table games licenses.
The Senate on Monday adopted an amendment offered by Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, clarifying that the “decoupling” provision does not permit the casinos to operate additional satellite locations.
Senate Judiciary Committee withdrew consideration of a controversial measure to eliminate civil service protections for state employees, opting instead to draft a resolution calling for a study of the issue during legislative interim meetings this year (SB 408).
Senate Finance Committee advanced to the full Senate a bill to give Division of Corrections employees pay raises of $2,008 (SB 293).
Low pay for correctional officers in state prisons and Regional Jails has been an ongoing problem for years, resulting in high turnover, vacant positions, and forced mandatory overtime.
“We all know this has been a problem in our system for a long time,” Hall said. “The more we can [offer incentives for] people to stay with us, the better.”
The salary increase would cost about $5 million a year.
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