A new effort to eliminate the $17 million a year subsidy for greyhound racing purses at tracks in Wheeling and Nitro advanced to the full Senate Monday after passing the Senate Finance Committee on a 10-6 vote, over strong opposition from Northern Panhandle senators.
The subsidy, which comes primarily from a 1½ percent tax on video lottery revenues from the racetracks’ casinos, has been a frequent target of past Legislatures, as attendance and wagering on greyhounds has faded from its mid-1980s heyday.
On Monday, Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said that money could be better used going into state coffers rather than being used to “float a business that is not profitable.”
However, Sens. William Ihlenfield, D-Ohio, and Michael Maroney, R-Marshall, argued that the bill could potentially devastate Wheeling Island Racetrack and Casino, possibly leading to the casino’s relocation elsewhere.
“I’m actually embarrassed to be part of the majority party when stuff like this comes up,” Maroney said, contending the bill is driven by grudges against breeders and general opposition to gambling on the part of some legislators.
“If there’s a dog track in the Eastern Panhandle, we wouldn’t be talking about this, I promise you that,” he added.
Finance Chairman Craig Blair is from Berkeley County.
Earlier, Maroney unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to wipe out the same funding mechanism that supports racing purses at the state’s two thoroughbred racetracks.
Proponents of the bill contended that greyhound racing is a dying sport, with Florida becoming the largest state to begin closing its greyhound tracks.
Once Florida closes its 11 greyhound tracks this year, there will only be six operating tracks in the U.S., two of which will be in West Virginia, said Richie Heath, lobbyist for the national anti-greyhound racing organization Grey2K USA and former counsel to the Senate president.
“This would free up $17.4 million additional revenue for the Legislature to appropriate as it sees fit,” Heath said of the bill, citing fiscal data from the state Racing Commission.
However, Ihlenfeld suggested that instead of portraying West Virginia as one of the last outposts for a dying sport, the state could effectively have a monopoly on an industry that still has some popularity, as measured by increased revenue at the two tracks for simulcasting races to casinos and off-track betting parlors nationally.
“We’re very close to cornering the market, very close to being the only game in town,” he said.
Wheeling city manager Robert Herron said Wheeling Island Casino and Racetrack is a major employer in the city, and the potential that its operations might be scaled back or moved would be devastating for a city already hard-hit by the closure of Ohio Valley Medical Center.
Last year, the operators of the casino backed legislation to allow each casino to operate a second satellite location, but the bill died in Senate Finance. Nothing in the current bill would authorize the casinos to move to new locations.
Several opponents of the measure were critical of Grey2K USA for airing what they called a misleading and deceptive marketing campaign emphasizing greyhound deaths and injuries.
Steve Sarras, a Wheeling-based greyhound breeder who races dogs at both West Virginia tracks, said breeders have a vested interest to assure that the dogs are well treated.
“If my dogs don’t finish first, second, third or fourth, I don’t get paid,” he said.
“The state is being hoodwinked, as other states have been,” Sarras said of the Grey2K campaign.
Sarras moved to West Virginia after a Grey2K campaign ended greyhound racing in his home state of Massachusetts.
In 2017, a nearly identical bill passed the Senate 19-15 and the House of Delegates 56-44 — again over strong opposition from Northern Panhandle legislators — but was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice, who called the measure a “job killer.”
Proponents of the bill are hoping that current state budget shortfalls may make Justice more amenable to supporting the revenue measure.