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CURRENT STORIES


No dice

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- North Central business owners who've taken a gamble on "casino" signage in order to promote their video poker-style machines may be in for a disappointment.

A legislative amendment is in the works that would prohibit such advertising and generally tighten the 2001 law that allowed the machines, also known as limited video lottery. The state Lottery Commission and legislative leadership expect the changes to hit the floor in 2004's regular session, which begins in January.

"The loophole is that the Legislature said you can't name your business 'video lottery,' which meant, to a whole lot of other people, that any other name is fair game," said John Melton, attorney for the state Lottery Commission.

Businesses with names that included gambling terms or references to popular video lottery games began popping up around the state a few months after the machines became legal in January 2002. By late last year, many machine retailers seemed to have settled on "casino" as the favored code word to indicate the presence of machines. Large signs, including at least one interstate billboard, soon followed.

Melton said that would all change if the Legislature adopts the commission's recommendations, which will soon be reviewed by House and Senate rule committees. Among several items included in the commission's 23-page proposal is a ban on the use of any gambling terms in machine retailers' corporate or doing-business-as names.

Intent of the law

House Speaker Bob Kiss, who supported the 2001 Limited Video Lottery Act, said some such changes are probably in order. Kiss, D-Raleigh, said complaints about overt advertising and "cinderblock casinos" have been pouring in, particularly from the North Central and Eastern Panhandle regions of the state.

He said the Northern Panhandle also is a hot spot for the new breed of gambling establishments, although citizens there have not responded as negatively.

"I tend to agree with them (complainants) that no one ever did envision that was going to happen," Kiss said. "I think it's something the Legislature is going to be forced to revisit."

Because the North Central region has become the epicenter of the issue, he expects legislators here to "drive the bus," however.

That's something Sen. Michael Oliverio, D-Monongalia, said he would be happy to be part of, although the commission's work has been so quiet he was unaware of it until last week. Oliverio was an outspoken opponent of legalizing the machines, which he considers a predatory source of state revenue.

"When you drive through the many communities in West Virginia, the in-your-face style of advertising appears to be inconsistent with the governor's and administration's goal of reducing, restricting and regulating the machines," Oliverio said.

In addition to approving a ban on overt advertisement, he also would endorse changes to help problem gamblers be more aware of the time they are spending in front of a machine. Those could include clocks on each machine and automatic cash-outs after so many minutes of play. He said both measures already are used in other states.

In the meantime

Between now and the start of the 2004 session -- which both Kiss and Melton predict is the earliest the changes will surface on the legislative floors -- such ideas could come into play. The House and Senate rules committees will have the option of changing the Lottery Commission proposal, as well as rejecting it or recommending it for further action as is.

Melton said one thing that may need to be clarified is what will happen to the businesses that already have invested in signage that could become contraband. Assuming that a retroactive ban could occur, "we're recommending early adherence to the proposed rule."

He said the money involved in lost signage could become a big issue for some retailers, particularly newer ones that are desperate to advertise the presence of machines. Because machine operation is costly, he said some retailers are struggling and a few already have gone out of business.

"It's a pretty big investment," he said, noting that just 18 months into legalization, fewer than 6,000 of the 9,000 allowed machines are in use.

He also noted the advertising controversy is not the first attempt at tweaking the young Limited Video Lottery Act. In the regular 2003 session, which ended in March, a bill was floated that would have increased the cost of certain liquor licenses and required machine retailers to keep a minimum amount of alcohol on site.

That was intended to close another loophole identified by the state Alcohol Beverage Control Administration in 2002. Officials there have said that some machine retailers are acquiring Class A liquor licenses solely to qualify for machines. They said, in some establishments, retailers' only nod to their liquor license is a single bottle of liquor kept sealed on a shelf.

Melton said that attempt failed primarily because of concern about the fee increases.

Keith Wagner, a deputy commissioner for the ABCA, said that agency is still aware of the trend but cannot make a change without an act of the Legislature.

Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com