The Senate will consider bills this week to legalize casino gambling at The Greenbrier and to repeal a controversial mountaintop removal law, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, said Monday. Tomblin said a majority of Democratic senators in a caucus Monday afternoon said they would support a bill to legalize casino gambling at The Greenbrier if it contained constraints discussed two years ago. Those restrictions, including giving most of the gambling profits to the state, are to prevent other casinos from opening in the state. Greenbrier executives say they need the guests-only casino to attract guests during winter months, when occupancy rates plummet. There was less support Monday for two other major gambling issues: coin-drop video lottery at state racetracks and regulation of "gray" video poker machines. "The consensus is that we need to do something with them, but we don't know exactly what," Tomblin said of the gray machines found in bars, clubs and convenience stores around the state. He said more study is needed to determine whether to regulate existing machines or to replace them outright with a network operated by the state Lottery Commission. Tomblin's family owned Southern Amusement Co., one of the state's largest suppliers of gray machines, from 1951 to 1995. They sold the business to Delegate Joe C. Ferrell, D-Logan. Also this week, Tomblin said, the Senate should take action on a bill to repeal a 1998 law that greatly expanded the area that could be destroyed by mountaintop removal valley fills before companies would have to pay to mitigate damages. Tomblin said senators want to restore the previous 250-acre standard. Provisions in the 1998 law that require a comprehensive study of the long-range impacts of mountaintop removal will remain in effect, he said. Senate Democrats also endorsed action on a companion bill to set up an Office of Blasting within the Department of Environmental Protection to act on complaints about damage caused by blasting and to conduct pre-blast surveys. The caucus also reached consensus to divide Workers' Compensation savings, only to learn after the meeting that business lobbyists are objecting to the plan. Actuarial studies last year confirmed that a 40-year plan to eliminate a $1.9 billion unfunded liability actually will do so in less than 20 years. Putting the program back on a 40-year plan would free up about $60 million. That would be divided roughly equally to lower the threshold percentage of whole body injury needed to qualify for permanent total disability benefits, and to reduce employer premiums. "It's hard to believe business would not agree to have roughly $30 million in premium cuts," said Tomblin. He said lawmakers will try to get all sides back to the bargaining table, but said the Legislature eventually will proceed with or without business support. Tomblin said there is still "not a whole lot of support" for the governor's proposed tax on smokeless tobacco among Senate Democrats. The wholesale tax on smokeless tobacco would raise about $7.1 million a year, including $5 million in the governor's 1999-2000 budget to fund the state's share for the Children's Health Insurance Program. That $5 million is part of what amounts to about $78 million of holes in the '99-00 budget. Tomblin said a major portion of Monday's discussions involved ways to plug holes in the Underwood budget bill. The majority party caucus carries significant weight, since 29 of the 34 senators are Democrats. In other activity Monday, the Senate: Passed 29-4 and sent to the House a bill that would give counties the same authority large cities now have to adopt ordinances prohibiting excessive noise. Sen. Shirley Love, D-Fayette, questioned whether the bill would affect gun clubs or target ranges. Senate Judiciary Chairman Bill Wooton, D-Raleigh, said the bill doesn't specify types of noise. Wooton said it probably would not be constitutional to use a noise ordinance to ban an existing target range. Sens. Boley, Love, Mitchell and Sprouse voted against the bill. Sen. Pat Fanning, D-McDowell was absent. Passed 33-0 and sent to the House a bill that would require inmates to submit motions to delay their parole hearings at least 30 days before the scheduled hearing. That would prevent inmates from requesting delays at the last minute, inconveniencing victims and families who have made plans to testify.
To contact staff writer Phil Kabler, call 348-5193.