A word we’ll surely be hearing a lot this election year is socialism.
It will be used as a dirty word against candidates who advocate for maintaining or expanding vital programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, as well as safety net programs such as SNAP, commonly known as food stamps. (Funny how the benefit of something like SNAP to the grocery industry is never mentioned as part of the equation when legislators are trying to cut the benefits.)
But a lot of legislators who will spend this fall denouncing their opponents as socialists have long histories of advocating and supporting corporate socialism, in the form of tax breaks and fiscal incentives.
Over the past several years, West Virginia lawmakers have given out more than $300 million a year in corporate tax cuts, on the promise it would lead to a burgeoning statewide economy, only to blow a gaping hole in the state budget without much measurable return on investment.
Yes, we can argue over the semantics of whether that’s state money or the greyhound industry’s promised “cut” of casino profits — but neither side disputes that, without that cash infusion, greyhound racing could not survive in West Virginia.
For many years, the subsidy has far exceeded revenue from live betting at the state’s two greyhound tracks. Meanwhile, the state Racing Commission spends about $770,000 to regulate dog racing in the state, and because the industry does not generate much in the way of revenue for the state, the commission is on pace to exhaust its reserve funds and run out of money sometime next year.
A 2015 study commissioned by the Legislature determined that the industry at that time directly employed 618 full- and part-time employees, and the number of people with state racing licenses (required for owners, trainers and kennel workers to be trackside on racing days) is about 100 below that figure. (The industry has long claimed that 1,700 folks are employed in greyhound breeding and racing statewide, but that appears to be more wishful thinking than reality.)
In effect, the state is subsidizing greyhound racing to the tune of somewhere between $10,000 per job per year (industry figures) to $27,500 per job per year (Spectrum Gaming study).
Still, that’s a better deal than the $75,000 per job, per year, cost of the $12 million a year Pleasants Power Station tax break, or the $150,000 per job created cost of the $60 million a year cut in the severance tax on steam coal. (That’s based on West Virginia Coal Association claims that the tax cut would create 400 new mining jobs. Mining employment has since actually declined.)
Nonetheless, at a time when the state has a nearly endless list of pressing needs, from crumbling roads to shortages of Child Protective Service workers and foster care parents, it’s not hard to make the argument that the $17 million could be better spent on something other than propping up an industry that is, pardon the pun, on its last legs.
So if legislators tell you this fall they’re opposed to socialism, what they really mean is that they oppose government spending on programs that benefit the poor and the working class. They’re usually more than happy to embrace corporate socialism.
During the greyhound subsidy debate, there’s been an interesting dichotomy. Northern Panhandle legislators, nearly to a person, are adamantly opposed to ending the subsidy, while Kanawha Valley legislators have made barely a peep about it.
Clearly, Northern Panhandle legislators are concerned that once the Wheeling Island casino is decoupled from the requirement to have greyhound racing on-site, the next shoe to drop will be a push to move the casino elsewhere.
Wheeling Island is difficult to access, is flood prone, and is generally not considered one of Wheeling’s more desirable neighborhoods.
Last year, a bill to allow casinos to each operate one satellite facility was moved mostly so Wheeling Island could set up a casino at The Highlands retail complex, about 7 miles east of Wheeling, while construction on Interstate 70 makes access to Wheeling Island even more challenging. That bill passed the House 80-15, but died in Senate Finance, partly over concerns that the Highlands casino could become the preeminent operation ahead of Wheeling Island.
The Mardi Gras Casino in Nitro, on the other hand, is pretty much ideally located just off Interstate 64, and an easy drive from the Charleston and Huntington/Ashland metroplexes.
Other than allowing for the conversion of the racetrack area into a nice greenspace, it’s unlikely decoupling would have much impact on the facility. (As noted before, one can spend hours at the Mardi Gras casino without ever realizing there is a greyhound track on the premises.)
Without a bloc of “no” votes from Kanawha and Putnam senators, stopping the bill from advancing in the Senate becomes, as they say at the races, a real longshot.
Part of the argument against the legislation is that the groups promoting it are from out of state — particularly Massachusetts-based Grey2K USA, which opposes greyhound racing on humane grounds and has had multiple victories ending greyhound racing in other states, most recently and notably in Florida.
“Just because some out-of-state special interest people wants us to quit doing this seems short-sighted to me,” Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, said Monday.
Of course, presuming that Grey2K and other humane organizations have nefarious motives simply because they are from out-of-state seems a bit hypocritical for a Legislature that takes its marching orders from the National Rifle Association, based in Fairfax, Virginia; and from the National Right to Life Committee, headquartered in Washington, D.C.; and uses the American Legislative Exchange Council, based in Arlington, Virginia, as the source for much of its draft legislation.