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W.Va. Senate sends bill on Greyhound Breeding Fund to the doghouse

The West Virginia Senate in deliberations over the repeal of the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund made it over the finish line Wednesday after a bill to eliminate the fund was rejected by the state Senate.

Senate Bill 285 was rejected in a 23-11 vote with nine Republicans voting with Democrats to kill the bill.

SB 285 would have eliminated the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund by July 1. The bill would have eliminated transfer of wagers on table games and video lottery machines to the fund and instead transferred that funding to the Excess Lottery Revenue Fund for distribution by the Legislature.

Mardi Gras Casino in Kanawha County and Wheeling Island Casino in Ohio County would have been impacted by the bill removing the requirement they offer greyhound racing as a condition of having table games. Voters in Ohio and Kanawha counties approved table games at Mardi Gras and Wheeling Island in 2007, but only as long as the casinos had racing.

Additionally, the bill would have used the remaining money in the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund for the following: $3 million to retrain workers in the greyhound industries in the state, $1 million to promote adoption of greyhounds used at the two racetracks, and a one-time $500 tax credit for West Virginians who adopt a greyhound which sunsets July 1, 2023.

According to the fiscal note for the bill submitted by the Department of Revenue, the state would have gained $17.4 million in revenue if the breeding fund is eliminated.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, was the lead sponsor of the bill. Leaving his place at the podium to speak, Carmichael said a vote against the bill was only delaying the inevitable.

“Whether we do it this year, next year or the year after, it is going to happen,” Carmichael said. “Greyhound racing is ending all across America. There’s only a few handful of states that even allow it legally to occur. And we’re the only state in America that subsidizes the activity.”

Carmichael said the $17.4 million generated from table games and video lottery machines by patrons of the casinos doesn’t belong to the casinos, but belongs to the state since it passes through the West Virginia Lottery.

“I hear a lot of talk about this is their money. It’s not their money,” Carmichael said. “I just proved it from yesterday. We just allocated excess lottery funds yesterday, over almost $30 million. So, it’s taxpayer money.”

Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, disputed Carmichael’s claim that a greyhound dies every 10 days in the racing industry. According to numbers cited by Weld from the state Racing Commission, 69 greyhounds have died racing in the last five years. Weld also said claims that the total amount of bets taken, also called the handle, is decreasing at greyhound racetracks is incorrect.

“Over the past 10 years, the horseracing industry in this state has seen a 35 percent decrease in total handle. Greyhound racing has seen a 34 percent increase,” Weld said. “I struggle with the ‘industry on decline’ label for greyhound racing.”

Weld said GREY2K, an animal rights group based in Massachusetts and an advocate for ending greyhound racing, is using misinformation while doing nothing to help with greyhound adoption efforts in states that have ended racing, including Florida.

“They were involved in outlawing racing in Florida, then played no part in the adoption of the dogs in the industry afterward,” Weld said. “If this bill were to pass, they have no plan whatsoever.”

Eliminating the breeding development fund would put jobs at the two casinos with greyhound racing at risk, as well as have a negative downstream economic impact on businesses in the Northern Panhandle that provide services to the industry, Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, said. Wheeling is feeling the effects of hundreds of job losses at the Ohio Valley Medical Center.

“We can’t afford to take another blow like this right now in the city of Wheeling despite some of the good things that are going on,” Ihlenfeld said. “I’m optimistic about the future of Wheeling, but I don’t want to see this happen to the city of Wheeling right now. We can’t absorb this blow right now.”

With West Virginia having two of six remaining greyhound tracks in the country, the state should be trying to capture the potential from bettors outside the state to place wagers on West Virginia’s races, Ihlenfeld said. It could be as much as $400 million from bettors in Florida alone.

“There aren’t many industries in our state that we control,” Ihlenfeld said. “We’re getting close to being the only game in town when it comes to this industry. Instead of kicking this to the curb, we ought to embrace it. We ought to modernize it. We ought to make it even better and allow even more people to send money to West Virginia.”

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, said he has voted against greyhound racing before, including a similar bill the Legislature passed in 2017, but was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice at a ceremony at Wheeling Island. However, he said this time he wouldn’t vote for possibly ending jobs for West Virginians.

“I don’t agree with what the gambling of it, but to me, I’m looking at the jobs, the people that we’re going to unemploy,” Smith said. “If we do this, it won’t happen tomorrow or next week, but eventually we’re doing away with their jobs is the bottom line.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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