State’s hooked on gambling

It’s a little late to be worrying about the spilled milk, don’t you think? Perhaps we ought to focus on not spilling any more of it.

With just a week left in this year’s regular session of the West Virginia Legislature, one of the most pressing issues on the table involves Wheeling Island Hotel-Racetrack-Casino.

You probably know the story: Casino officials said table gambling has become a losing proposition for them, because of competition from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Unless they get substantial relief from the $2.5 million fee they must pay the state each year to operate table gambling, they’ll probably shut it down on Wheeling Island, casino officials say.

A bill initially introduced by state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, would grant the requested break.

Now, the measure is far from ideal. After it left Kessler’s hands, the amendments process wreaked havoc on the bill. Some senators have serious concerns about the version finally approved.

But the bottom line is that it appears the bill will do what Wheeling Island casino officials want – providing the House of Delegates approves it.

There may be the rub, as they say. Approval in the House is far from certain, both because of concerns about this specific bill and about legalized gambling in general. As Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, put it, “there are many people … who just oppose the whole idea of gambling.”

Well, yes. Count me among that crowd. I don’t particularly like legalized gambling, and what I’ve written for many, many years proves that.

But here’s the catch: West Virginia is as hooked on legalized gambling as any addict. We can’t do without it.

In its several forms, legalized gambling pumps about $536 million a year into the state budget. Another $44 million goes to municipalities and counties. Cutting that out of the budget without massive – possibly impossible – cuts in government services would require a tax increase averaging about $320 for every man, woman and child in the state.

We’re hooked, firmly.

Even as amended, the Kessler bill has a very important redeeming feature. It provides $1 million in license fee relief for each of the state’s racetrack/casinos – but only for one year. Next year at this time, anyone with a better idea will be able to suggest it.

But for now, the bill really needs to pass. It’s not just the more than 100 jobs linked to table gambling at Wheeling Island. It’s not just the cut of the table gambling “take” received by local and state governments.

According to the state Lottery Commission, which oversees legalized gambling in West Virginia, that agency’s “sales” during the fiscal year that ended last June 30 totalled $1.45 billion (state and local governments get to keep only a portion of that). Only $78 million of that total was from table gambling (this was before the new casino at Charles Town hit its stride).

So table gambling isn’t a particularly lucrative business for the state. Why worry about it?

If you will think back, you may recall the gambling interests, in pushing for table gambling, said they needed it not necessarily as a profit center, but to make casinos more attractive in general to the gambling public. The real money is in video gambling machines at the racetracks.

So if we allow table gambling at Wheeling Island to go down the toilet, it could mean the track will have even more trouble competing against casinos in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Does the term “death spiral” mean anything to you?

I’ll take a back seat to no one in my dislike for legalized gambling. The $100 million or so siphoned off from it to support the horse and dog racing industries is a particular gripe, but it’s another story.

Still, we’re hooked on it. It was a bad bet in the beginning – but our chips are on the table now and the roulette wheel is spinning. For now, the House needs to approve the Kessler bill.