West Virginia horsemen are closely following the proceedings of the state legislature with concern this week as state senators and delegates could consider serious cuts in slots funding to the racing industry.
House Bill 4333, which died at the end of the regular legislature session last weekend, was the latest attempt by its chief proponent, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, to reduce slots funding to breeders and horsemen in West Virginia. The bill originally proposed a 15 percent cut into the slots revenue for the breeders' incentive fund and horsemen's purse account, in addition to cuts into slots funding for greyhound organizations and city and county governments. Before its death, HB4333 was amended to spare cities and counties and cut 10 percent of slots revenue to horse and dog racing groups.
Officials in West Virginia say that 10 percent cut would equal over $4.8 million to the state's purse account, and $538, 211 to the breeders' incentive fund. Slots operators would also take six-figure hits to their capital improvement and modernization accounts.
Although extended discussion from Sen. Herb Snyder (which some called a filibuster) prevented HB4333's passage from the House to the Senate, many are worried that the bill could come back in some form during the current budgetary legislative session, or during a later special legislative session.
The motives behind the legislation vary depending on who you ask. Some say the horsemen's fund is an easy source of cash for a government that is under more financial stress than ever. The state is facing a budget deficit with both mining industry receipts and gambling revenues down this year, and the recent water disaster didn't help matters.
“I think the underlying reason for it is to try to find money and this is what they identified as an opportunity to do that,” said Delegate Paul Espinosa, who opposed the measure. “While I certainly recognize the importance of having a balanced budget, I just really wasn't willing to do that on the backs of our horsemen.”
Others believe that HB4333 or future similar legislation are part of a systematic attempt by the state lottery department to eliminate the horse racing industry.
“There has been an ongoing concerted effort from the opponents of racing [horses and dogs] for some time to put racing in a bad light,” said Martin Blaylock, vice president of the West Virginia Breeders' Association. “This has gone on over the years. The state wants to essentially kill it.
“It's going to be ugly.”
West Virginia was one of the first states to approve slots at racetracks, beginning with a slots program at Mountaineer in 1992. Breeders said the added income has begun to give the program the momentum it needed to become a strong regional player. Stallions Brother Derek, During, Windsor Castle, and Limehouse all now call West Virginia home.
“This would be devastating to a lot of breeders and people who race here,” said Mary Moore, farm manager at Naylee Farm in Summit Point. “You're looking at a whole town that would basically go under.
“Our program has really flourished. On a national level, we've really gained a lot of respect, and this would completely go in the wrong direction for us. It's just a shame to get this far and be held back by something like this.”
Espinosa pointed out that future legislation similar to HB4333 would act as the second in a one-two punch for the industry. The increased competition from online gambling sources and neighboring states with slots has already taken a chunk out of racing's bottom line in West Virginia.
“While I was certainly pleased that the cities and the counties were spared the impact of those cuts, it did leave the horsemen and the casino operators sort of out there by themselves,” said Espinosa. “They've already experienced a significant declines in their purses and their breeders' funds because of the declines in lottery play there at the casino. This would basically be an additional cut on top of the cuts they've already experienced.”
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