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Gray machines only the latest flap over gambling

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

Gray machines' path to prominence on this year's legislative docket can be traced to one event some 20 years ago, according to a lottery official.

"The state police raided a church bingo game," said John Melton, an attorney for the state Lottery Commission, of the action that sparked a 1982 legislative move to allow charitable bingo and raffles.

"That was really the rebeginning of games of chance," Melton said, noting games of skill, such as horse-race handicapping, have been a permanent, state-allowed industry since the early 1930s.

Since then, a series of gambling initiatives has snowballed through the Legislature.

State lotteries were allowed in 1984, Melton said. More recent legislative sessions have brought dog racing, slot machine-style games at dog and horse tracks, and the potential to have casino-style games at one hotel.

While Melton said that hotel was assumed to be the exclusive Greenbrier Resort, voters in that county rejected the idea. It can be reintroduced.

This year, gray machines, or electronic video poker games, will be the issue, according to Gov. Bob Wise. He wants to again expand the legalized gambling fold to include the machines in order to take a cut of the profits for the state. He wants to use some of the money to fund college scholarships.

"There are three things that are inexorably marching toward West Virginia," Wise said in Jan. 29 speech, "kudzu, fire ants and South Carolina's gray machines."

That state rejected the machines' very presence in July and Wise said many of them have already been moved into this state, increasing the need to regulate. In West Virginia, the machines are legal but payouts for wins are not.

Wise upped the ante in mid-January by saying he will order state police to crack down on the machines if the Legislature does not legalize them this year. This week he ordered state police to provide an inventory of how many machines are in the state and where they are.

In the meantime, a state police spokesman said they are cautiously watching.

"There is a law on the books to deal with illegal payouts," said Michael Corsaro, state police public information officer. "Anyone involved in that illegal transaction could be charged."

The state Supreme Court has already grappled with gray machines on at least two occasions, according to Melton.

In 1985, the city of Fairmont seized two machines during a raid. In a 1989 court decision that followed an appeal, it was held the machines were legal and could not be seized or destroyed unless gambling activity could be proven.

In a 1992 case involving the federal government and three Wheeling businessmen, the court decided similarly.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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