Lottery commission, track await action from Legislature

WHEELING – West Virginia Lottery Commission officials need the Legislature to decide if Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack has to pay a $2.5 million fee to keep roulette wheels spinning beyond July 13.

Track President and General Manager Jim Simms said tables for craps, poker, blackjack, roulette and other live games at Wheeling Island are on pace to operate at a $1 million loss this year. Combined with the $2.5 million annual fee, the track would essentially be paying $3.5 million to have the table games.

“The Legislature controls the purse strings – we simply enforce their laws,” said Randy Burnside, spokesman for the commission. “Any change to the fee structure requires legislative action.”

West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale, was a strong advocate for the passage of table gambling in 2007 as a means to create new jobs and revenue in the state. He said Monday that senators are having “very preliminary discussions” regarding the $2.5 million annual fee that Wheeling Island and the state’s three other casinos must pay for table gambling. He did not know if or when the matter would be officially introduced as legislation.

“At the time we passed the legislation, it seemed fair – each track would pay the same $2.5 million. We were looking at a much different landscape then because Pennsylvania was just getting ready to start with slot machines and Ohio was not even considering gaming at that time,” Kessler said.

Since Wheeling Island and the state’s three other racetracks – Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in Chester, the Mardi Gras West Virginia Casino & Hotel (formerly Tri-State Racetrack) near Charleston and the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in the Eastern Panhandle – started rolling dice in late 2007, both Ohio and Pennsylvania have established slot machines and table gambling.

The recent opening of the Hollywood Casino Columbus has been particularly damaging to Wheeling Island, as much of the facility’s customer base over the past few years has come from central Ohio. Information Simms provided shows that through the first two months of 2012, the Wheeling track only lost $3,365 on table gambling. For the first two months of this year after the Columbus casino opened, however, the Wheeling loss is $171,407.

Simms said there are several potential ways the Legislature could help resolve the problem, including the possibility of applying the fee on the state’s four casinos in a more equitable manner that would be based on how much business each property actually does, rather than just charging each one $2.5 million. This concept is something Kessler said he is at least willing to discuss.

“If one of the tracks has 150 tables going and another one only has 40 tables going, maybe they should not have to pay the same amount,” Kessler said. “Maybe you could charge some sort of a flat fee, which is lower than $2.5 million, and make up the rest based on the number of tables.

“The bottom line is: We need that $10 million,” he said of the $2.5 million fee paid by each of the casinos.

Burnside said the $10 million generated by the table gambling fees is used for senior citizen health care, something Kessler said he is “not interested” in changing.

Simms said there are now 105 track employees whose jobs are directly connected to table gambling. The number of employees has declined over the past few years in response to the drop in business, as about 500 people were employed there in connection with table gambling when the games began in late 2007.

“We are very concerned about a loss of jobs at Wheeling Island. We are hoping all of this can get turned around,” Burnside said.

“We need to find a way to keep all of our facilities open and doing as much business as they can,” Kessler added.