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WV Senate committee takes up bill to eliminate greyhound subsidy

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As the Senate Finance Committee launched into the Legislature’s latest attempt to eliminate state subsidies for greyhound racing purses, some senators wanted to be sure that the potential costs of eliminating racing will not exceed the savings to the state.

“We could be possibly cannibalizing ourselves and putting ourselves deeper in the hole,” Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said of legislation to eliminate the $15 million annual subsidy to the greyhound purse funds (SB 347).

This is at least the third straight year the Legislature has considered legislation to eliminate the subsidy, as well as eliminating the requirement in state law that the state’s two greyhound racetrack casinos — Wheeling Island, in Wheeling, and Mardi Gras, in Nitro — have live racing in order to maintain their video lottery and table games licenses.

A 2015 study commissioned by the Legislature concluded that the state subsidy accounts for about 95 percent of greyhound purses, while wagering and attendance at the races has dropped off sharply from a peak in the mid-1980s.

Unger said he wants to be assured that “decoupling” greyhound racing from the casinos will not hurt overall attendance, since the racetracks make the two casinos distinctive from the dozens of competing “stand-alone” casinos in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

“If there is no racing, does tourism go down? Will people not come to Wheeling Island or Mardi Gras?” Unger asked.

Likewise, Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said he wants to see a jobs impact statement on the number of jobs that will be lost if greyhound racing is eliminated.

“It’s my understanding there would be a significant number of layoffs because of this,” he said.

Joe Moore, executive director of the state Racing Commission, said the commission has 13 state employees working at the two tracks.

Additionally, all persons employed in the greyhound industry — from kennel owners, breeders, to dog walkers — have to have permits from the commission to set foot in the racetrack facilities. Moore said there currently are about 1,500 permit holders.

However, Steve Sarras, president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association, told the committee that more than 1,700 direct and indirect jobs would be lost if the bill is enacted.

Sarras said if greyhound racing is decoupled from casino gaming, management of the two racetrack casinos would be unlikely to continue racing, and even if they did, the purses would not be sufficient to compete without the state subsidy.

“If they decouple, I can tell you right now it is not cost effective to race in West Virginia,” Sarras said.

Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, said that on the occasions he has visited Mardi Gras, the track workers have outnumbered spectators at the greyhound races.

Sarras said that could be because races are telecast on monitors within the casino, so persons could be wagering on the greyhound races without actually staying in the racetrack grandstand.

He told the committee the state should be trying to reinvigorate interest in greyhound racing, not in eliminating it.

“It doesn’t need to be scrapped. It just needs to be tweaked,” he said.

Because of the questions, Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, delayed action on the bill until Wednesday afternoon.

In addition to eliminating state funding, and the live racing requirement as of July 1, the bill also would provide a $1 million account to provide care and promote adoption of greyhounds at the two tracks after racing ends.

House and Senate leadership already has included the $15 million savings from eliminating the greyhound purse subsidy in the “framework” announced Monday for their $4.055 billion 2017-18 state budget proposal.

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