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W.Va.'s Burgeoning Gambling Habit

The state's deal with the tracks gives it as much as 60 percent of the net slots revenue, bringing cash for education and seniors and veterans programs. The windfall began a period, now 10 years long, without a tax increase on income, property or sales.

Penn National Gaming Inc., based in Wyomissing, Pa., expressed interest in the sprawling Charles Town track. The success of the other tracks was becoming clear, and gambling lobbyists spent heavily to promote the measure.

Donna Gough of Amelia, Va., hits a payoff at a slot machine at Charles Town Racing and Slots in West Virginia. Slots yield $7 million a week for the track. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Po St)

_____Slot Machines_____
Md. Senate Pushes Toward Compromise on Slots, but Busch Rebels (The Washington Post, Mar 12, 2005)
Lawmakers, Pastors Join Forces To Urge Rejection of Slots Bill (The Washington Post, Mar 10, 2005)
Anti-Slots Campaign Moves to Localities (The Washington Post, Mar 9, 2005)
Md. Pastors See Peril In Slots (The Washington Post, Mar 7, 2005)
More on Slot Machines

Today, Charles Town is the state's largest racing and slots venue: Last year it collected $400 million in net revenue and employed 1,400 full- and part-time employees. If a table gaming referendum passes, the track envisions a $150 million expansion and the addition of 500 jobs. "We're building a 150-room hotel," slated to open next year, said John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National. Further expansion, including two 250-room hotels, "depends on table games."

Thirty-five percent of Charles Town's guests come from Maryland, a fact that has not gone unnoticed among slots supporters in Annapolis.

A bill approved by the Maryland House of Delegates last month would put two of four slots venues in counties on the road to West Virginia. Another would be along Interstate 95 toward Delaware, which has slots at racetracks, and Pennsylvania, which is installing them.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has long urged lawmakers to approve his slots proposal and keep gambling dollars from leaving the state. "Marylanders are voting with their feet for slots," he is fond of saying.

But gambling opponents see West Virginia's experience, and its current flirtation with table games, as evidence of an escalating demand that will come with slot machines.

"It's the gambling equivalent of a nuclear arms race," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery.) "The inevitable response from Maryland and Pennsylvania will be, 'We need table games.' "

For West Virginia, the situation presents a conundrum: Charles Town siphons slots players from neighboring states. But to keep doing that, the state needs to expand its gambling options, perhaps more than once.

"We're on the verge of becoming a full-blown resort facility," Finamore said. Table gaming, he said, "will help us. But I don't know that we'll recoup everything."

The table gaming bill is expected to win approval in coming weeks, though some say all will depend on how it is amended. As written, the measure places no limit on the number of tables at each track or on the size of the bets.

Over the years, the number of slot machines climbed at the four tracks. So, too, did the number of gray terminals at bars, convenience stores and fraternal clubs. The machines were not allowed to pay out winnings, but many did.

In 2001, Gov. Bob Wise pushed a measure to legalize about half the machines, in an effort to regulate them and collar more cash for education. The legislature passed the measure in a close vote. The decision, those on both sides of the issue say, brought slots from tracks into neighborhoods and angered the public.

That is why gambling opponents including Del. Kelli Sobonya (R-Huntington) are pushing for a statewide referendum on table games.

"In my area, within three miles, there are dozens of those slots parlors," Sobonya said. She cites records of calls to the state-sponsored problem gambling hotline, in which the majority of callers said they wagered at the small parlors.

The law, said gambling opponent Sen. Mike Oliverio (D-Monongalia), "expanded slots into all 55 counties, into nearly 1,500 locations and the public never voted on it."

It was a sign, he said, that "legislatures can get addicted to gambling . . . and more gambling becomes an easy fix."

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