Gambling money funds a cornerstone of Bob Wise's campaign: Promise Scholarships. The new program would pay the in-state tuition for students with a "B" average or better in high school. To pay for it, the Democrat wants to tax payouts
from video poker machines, payouts
that are now illegal outside of the tate's four racetracks.
can't get the state Legislature to pass regulations on
video poker, he said he would move to enforce the laws against payouts
. State government should either legalize and regulate gambling or strictly enforce laws against it, he said.
"Now we're in the worst of all worlds. We're not controlling where they are and who's using them, or getting any taxes," Wise
said. "We hould regulate, reduce and tax machines - or take them out."
Currently, the machines, commonly called "gray machines," are found in taverns and some convenience stores. While billed as "for amusement only," the machines are widely used for gambling. Wise
may support legalizing gray machines, but gambling interests in the state are putting their money on his Republican opponent, Gov. Cecil Underwood. They gave Underwood's campaign more than $40,000 as of the end of May. Wise
has received $9,750, about one-quarter that amount, according to the nonpartisan People's Election Reform Coalition, which has assembled a database of campaign contributors and their occupations. Gambling interests include people who own an interest in or work for racetracks, "gray machine" distributors, or The Greenbrier, or
their immediate families. Opponents of gambling questioned whether Wise's plan
would take money from low-income people who play video lottery and give it to middle-income college students. Tom Burger works for the United Methodist Church in West Virginia, which opposes using gambling money to fund even worthwhile projects like college scholarships. "This kind of gambling takes advantage of the poor anyway," Burger aid. "I find it ironic to use funds gained in this way to pay for folks
who might be in a better position to fund their own education." Wise
said his scholarships would benefit low-income students as well as wealthier ones, though he would be willing to think about basing
the Promise Scholarships on financial need as well as academic achievement. He also disputed whether low-income people are the majority of video poker gamblers. "My observation is that all economic groups are pushing the button," Wise
said. "If I play this machine, at least I get one guaranteed payout." But the Rev. Nathan Wilson disagrees with that observation. Wilson is an anti-gambling activist and director of the West Virginia Council of Churches. "Every study I've read says low-income people are disproportionately hurt by gambling," Wilson said. Wilson also questioned the wisdom of basing a major social program on a funding source like gambling, which is subject to wide fluctuations. The program is estimated to cost $25 million in its first year. Wise aid at least he has found a funding source for the program.
"There's nothing more unstable than having no source of funding, which is the present situation," Wise
supported giving Greenbrier County voters the option to allow casino gambling at The Greenbrier hotel. He would not rule out giving other counties the same option, although he said he'd be reluctant to do so. Wise's campaign manager, Steve F. White of the Charleston law firm Goodwin and Goodwin, has lobbied for a state racetrack at the Legislature. Wise
criticized Underwood for refusing to use state troopers to top illegal payouts on video poker machines. New machines are
coming up from South Carolina and taking over the state like kudzu and the fire ant, he said. Wise
joked that he might name Cabell County Sheriff Hercil Gartin to enforce gambling laws in the state. Gartin has made headlines with several raids on establishments where illegal video poker machines payouts
have been witnessed. "If Sheriff Gartin can do it in Cabell County, why can't the State Police?" Wise
said. To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.