by Randy Coleman
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLESTON -- Gov. Bob Wise said Monday he's preparing a bill that would force the Legislature to make a choice: Either regulate video poker machines to raise money for a statewide scholarship program or watch the police start taking machines away.
"Inaction is no longer acceptable," Wise explained.
During a meeting of the West Virginia Associated Press Managing Editors Association, Wise said he's preparing a bill that would "restrict and regulate" video poker machines, also called gray machines.
Money brought in through taxing the machines would be earmarked for education and infrastructure. Specifically, it would fund the PROMISE scholarship program, a plan that offers higher education scholarships to high-achieving students.
If the Legislature refuses to regulate the machines, Wise said he'll authorize law enforcement officers to began investigating establishments that house gray machines.
"I don't know of a better way to stimulate discussion," Wise said.
The machines -- which can be found at convenience stores, restaurants and bars -- are for amusement only. Payouts are illegal.
The governor expressed admiration for Cabell County Sheriff Hercil Gartin, who in July began undercover raids on establishments with gray machines. An August raid, led by Gartin, led to the removal of 39 video poker machines from two businesses in eastern Cabell County.
"Nobody in the past has thought governors were serious about this," Wise said.
Wise said the scholarship plan would cost about $9 million the first year. The costs would increase for four years, then began to level off, he said.
West Virginia needs the scholarship program because it would "send a message to parents that hard work pays off," Wise said.
Wise and Senate Education Chairman Lloyd Jackson, D-Lincoln, also said the scholarship program would eventually improve economic development in the state, because a more educated work force would attract more businesses.
Because West Virginia's budget is tight and tax receipts are below projections, taxing gray machines is the only chance to finance the scholarship program, Jackson said.
He also said selling the program to the Legislature could be tough.
"It will be a tougher sell today that it was even a year ago. We've said restrict, reduce and regulate," Jackson said. "But a lot of people don't want to restrict them, certainly don't want to reduce them and clearly don't want to regulate them."