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Vote to cut funding for greyhound racing looms in WV House

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail
Senate President Mitch Carmichael (center) listens to debate from senators about Senate Bill 437, which would eliminate funding for greyhound racing, earlier this week. The House of Delegates is expected to vote on the bill Friday.

A vote Friday in the House of Delegates could mark the end of greyhound racing in the state, but supporters of the industry appear ready to go out with a fight.

Legislation to eliminate some $15 million a year of state subsidies for greyhound racing purses is up for a passage vote in the House on Friday (SB437), after the House rejected a series of amendments, including one Thursday apparently designed to retain the funding.

“If there’s one job affected in my district, I’m going to stand up and fight for it,” Delegate Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln, said before his proposal was rejected on a 39-57 vote.

Although all sides agree that greyhound racing at the state racetrack casinos in Wheeling and Nitro cannot survive without the subsidy, which comes from a 1.5 percent tax on video lottery machines at the casinos, the number of people who will be affected by the cuts is less clear.

Industry representatives have cited 1,700 greyhound racing jobs in the state, while a 2015 study commissioned by the Legislature determined there were 618 individuals directly employed in the industry, either full- or part-time. According to the state Racing Commission, there currently are a total of 516 current greyhound racing licenses, required of greyhound owners, and by trainers and kennel employees who work at the tracks on racing days.

Delegates had previously rejected an amendment by Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, calling for an economic impact study on the loss of jobs, and potential loss of tourism and gaming revenue with the elimination of greyhound racing.

“Lies and deception — that’s all we hear on this bill,” Fluharty said Thursday, before being declared out of order.

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, argued that greyhound racing’s popularity has waned.

“The truth is, the general public just no longer does support the raising and training and running of these dogs,” he said.

House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, cited figures from the 2015 Spectrum Gaming Group study, which showed attendance at the Wheeling Island racetrack had plunged from 900,000 a year at its peak in the mid-1980s to about 20,000 a year.

Nelson stressed that eliminating the subsidy is part of multiple efforts to “right-size” state government to help close a $500 million shortfall in the 2017-18 state budget.

“At the end of the day, it’s about a balanced budget so we can continue to provide those programs, those priority programs, around the state,” he said.

The bill also removes a requirement in current law that the racetrack casinos must offer live racing as a condition of maintaining state video lottery and table games licenses — known in the industry as “decoupling” the casino operations.

Unlike some previous legislative attempts to eliminate the greyhound racing subsidy, the current bill has no buyout provisions for greyhound owners or breeders, but provides $1 million to provide for the care of displaced greyhounds in no-kill animal shelters, and to promote adoption of the dogs as pets.

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

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