Greyhound breeders urge WV lawmakers to keep industry alive

A number of greyhound owners and breeders Monday urged legislators to continue greyhound racing in the state, disputing a state-funded study that found the industry is in sharp decline and survives in West Virginia only because purse funds are 95 percent subsidized from casino profits.

“In a system that has made the state a tremendous amount of money over the years, and still employs a lot of employees, I don’t think you crumple it up and throw it away,” Steve Sarras, a Wheeling greyhound kennel owner and president of the state Kennel Owners Association, told members of the Joint Committee on Finance.

“The state’s making money on it. The tracks are making money on it,” greyhound breeder Patrick McMillon told legislators. “To have a report out saying we’re done I see a lot of discrepancies in it.”

The committee Monday took up a resolution passed in March to study the state’s gaming industry, and the state of greyhound racing in particular. That resolution was adopted after time ran out on legislation to allow casinos in Nitro and Wheeling to “decouple” the requirement that they offer greyhound racing.

Adam Steinberg, senior vice president for Spectrum Gaming Group, updated a legislative study released in January, which showed that attendance and wagering on greyhound racing at the two racetrack casinos has plummeted over the past two decades.

He said greyhound racing purses now are 95 percent subsidized from casino profits, up from 49 percent in 1995. Those subsidies totaled $29 million in 2012, the most recent year available at the time the study was published.

In the 2013-14 budget year, greyhound racing provided $1.2 million of revenue to the state, while it cost the state Racing Commission $965,000 to supervise those races, Steinberg said.

“This year, the cost to regulate will exceed the revenue to the state,” he said.

Sarras countered that critics of greyhound racing misuse the word subsidy to create the impression that tax dollars are supporting the industry.

“Subsidy’s a word you can throw around in the media if you want to get people upset about dog racing,” he said.

Delegate Chris Walters, R-Putnam, asked Sarras whether it would have been better to put the $29 million of greyhound subsidies into the state’s General Revenue Fund to provide constituent services.

Sarras said he believes greyhound racing benefits the Wheeling and Nitro casinos, allowing them to stand apart from the two dozen casinos in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and said he believes they would suffer as freestanding casinos.

“I don’t believe you rob Peter to pay Paul, and crush an entire industry,” he said.

He also said decoupling greyhound racing would put somewhere between 600 and 1,500 people out of work, referring to employment figures in the Spectrum report and an industry-funded study.

“Whether it’s 600 or 1,500 I don’t think we can afford to put even 600 more people out of work,” he said.

While most of the speakers Monday argued for continuing greyhound racing in West Virginia, state Greyhound Breeders Association President Sam Burdette called on legislators to provide a safe landing for breeders and owners who invested in the industry through an adequate buyout plan.

“The bottom has fallen out of the money going into the greyhound industry,” he said. “We understand the changes in technology. We understand the downturn in the economy. We understand you need money to balance your budget. We understand you will be looking very closely at racing.”

Urging a suitable buyout for those still in the business, Burdette said, “I’m asking, if you pull the rug out from under us, at least give us something to fall on.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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