As debate heats up between now and the start of the 2020 regular session on the issue of whether to eliminate state funding of greyhound racing purses, here’s a little more food for thought:
Because of declining revenue from racetrack video lottery, table games and greyhound racing purses, the state Racing Commission is on track to run out of money to oversee and administer greyhound races at Mardi Gras and Wheeling Island.
As Joe Moore told commissioners, each budget year, the greyhound administration fund runs out of money and the commission has to dip into to its general administrative fund to get through the year. However, Moore said the fund’s reserves will be depleted sometime during the 2021-22 budget year.
“Without any additional revenue source, the Racing Commission will be out of funds,” he said.
That means not only will the Legislature have to appropriate $15 million a year to subsidize greyhound racing purses (actually, now over $18 million a year with passage of legislation this year restoring funds diverted in 2014 to pay down unfunded liabilities in Workers’ Comp), but will have to come up with additional funds for the commission to oversee racing at the two tracks.
Currently, the Racing Commission — which Commissioner Ken Lowe accurately noted is understaffed and underfunded — gets no general revenue funds, operating strictly from a percentage of racing and casino profits.
While live racing handles have shrunk over the years as interest in betting on races wanes, casino gaming revenues have been flat of late after years of decline from the peak year of 2007, as competing casinos opened in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The question for legislators will be: Are we getting the best bang for the buck from the $18 million, as well as potentially several hundred thousand dollars a year to bolster the greyhound administration fund?
I’ve complained many times on these pages about how the current legislative leadership has gutted the interim meeting process, reducing meeting days from three to two a month, and reducing 10 monthly meetings each year to seven.
This year, the interim meetings — ostensibly designed to give a part-time citizen legislature an opportunity to more thoroughly study matters of concern to the state and to craft legislation for the next regular session — have been further truncated with special sessions that have coincided with the May, June, July, September and now, November, interim meetings.
In theory, having special sessions overlap with interim meetings saves money. In reality, it makes already diminished interim meetings even more pointless, resulting in cancellations to what already is a very abbreviated schedule.
Gov. Jim Justice issued a three-item call Thursday for the session that begins Monday, and only one item seems to have any urgency: Legislation to give the state authority to proceed with the next rounds of Roads to Prosperity bond issues for highways construction.
Timing can be critical when taking bonds to market, so there may be valid reasons that this can’t wait for the less than two months until the start of the 2020 regular session.
However, that can’t be said for a bill to renew the Tourism Development Act — you may recall this was the 2014 bill that got a last-minute, behind-closed-doors amendment allowing several projects at then-private citizen Justice’s Greenbrier resort to qualify for the tax credits.
Under the law as currently drafted, the Development Office cannot accept applications for any new projects that may qualify for the tax credits after this Dec. 31. However, considering the 2020 regular session starts just eight days later, on Jan. 8, and given the likelihood the bill could be passed in a day or two, that would create only a brief hiatus in the program. What’s the rush?
This will be the second special session Justice has called this year. The first started in March and, after meeting on and off through the summer, ended in September, as Justice amended the original call four times, adding more than 40 also less-than-urgent bills to the agenda.
My theory is that calling special sessions (and amending the call) is a way for Justice to create the illusion that he’s performing the job of governor without actually having to do much at all: Issuing a call is easy, then he can sit back and let the Legislature do the real work.
Last week, I referenced how illustrations of Donald Trump by supporters belie their inability to see the president as he really is.
Likewise, a common refrain from Trump supporters has been about how good the economy is today, and how supposedly bad it was under President Barack Obama.
With last Monday being a state holiday, while I was alone here at the Capitol, I started reading the newly released 2018-19 annual report from the state Investment Management Board, and over the course of the day, went through the past 10 years of reports.
What I discovered is that, during the Obama presidency, the IMB averaged an 11.05 percent annual return on investments in state pension funds. That included five years of double-digit growth, topped by 20.7 percent growth in 2010-11.
Under Trump, the IMB’s return on investments has dropped to a 7.85 percent annual return, including a 6.0 percent underperformance in 2018-19, as tariffs and trade wars spooked investors.
Later in the week, the IMB’s Tom Sauvageot told the Consolidated Public Retirement Board that the earnings are indicative of markets that are leery of slowing U.S. and global economies, and issues such as the ongoing trade war with China.
While it’s true that Obama’s presidency began in the midst of the great recession, his administration was able to use economic stimulus packages, tax cuts, the auto industry bailout and re-regulation of the banking industry to turn the national economy around, and create the robust economy that continues to the present day.
To a great extent, Trump has simply been able to ride the vibrant economy that he inherited from Obama, even though Trump’s tariffs and trade wars are worrying investors, and likely contributing to the slowing economy Sauvageot cited.
And yet, there are supporters who, in their minds, still believe the economy was terrible under Obama, and started growing under Trump.
Follow-up: Regarding last week’s item about the Division of Personnel rejecting recently retired Public Employees Union Local UE 170 field organizer Gordon Simmons’ application to be a Cultural Program Specialist for lack of qualifications — despite having held the same position for six years prior to joining UE170 — Department of Administration spokeswoman Samantha Knapp advises, “I’m told that his application was rejected in error and an approval letter sent two days later.”
Finally, I had a chance to crash Charleston Main Streets’ fete honoring retiring Charleston Convention and Visitors’ Bureau CEO Alisa Bailey as its 2019 Urbanite of the Year.
Arguably, no one individual has done more for state tourism than Bailey.
During the evening, speakers talked about how Bailey, as CVB CEO, and prior, as state Tourism commissioner, used ingenuity, hard work and sheer force of will to outmaneuver larger, better funded states and tourism venues to bring conventions, tourism writers, and tour groups to the city and state.
I can add one recent example: I got a call from Railexco’s Lou Capwell with news that they had worked out a deal with Amtrak to add Charleston stops to the Autumn Colors Express excursion train.
I said, “That’s good, but you do realize Amtrak has almost no parking at the station.” After a long silence, Capwell asked in a somewhat panicked voice if there was any parking nearby.
I told him to call Alisa Bailey at the CVB.
Within 36 hours, working with the Mayor’s Office and KRT, she had worked out the logistics of arranging free parking at a city parking building downtown and having free shuttle bus service to and from the station, with the details posted on both the Autumn Colors and CVB websites within that timeframe.
The process worked flawlessly, and upwards of 600 riders boarded in Charleston. Assuming a third came from far enough away that they needed lodging the night before and the night of their rides, that probably generated in the neighborhood of $400,000 of revenue for hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues downtown on what otherwise would have been a slow fall weekend.
Bailey could have just as easily said, “Not my problem,” and let the Autumn Colors organizers fend for themselves — but that would have been completely out of character for her.
And I say these good things about her, despite the fact that a couple of summers ago, I was jogging on Morris Street, when a car slowed down, and the driver yelled out, “Run, Forrest, run.”
It was Alisa.