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Fight heats up against gambling legislation

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CHARLESTON -- A senator from Monongalia County and a Clarksburg-based lobbyist led a stepped-up attack on a video poker legalization plan Tuesday.

Sen. Michael Oliverio led off the day with a press conference that called on West Virginia citizens to join his fight to ban the gambling devices, also called gray machines, from the state.

"Gambling, at best, is a short-term fix with a long-term problem," he said of Gov. Bob Wise's move to legalize and tax the machines to fund state initiatives such as college scholarships.

Referring to a Clarksburg Exponent and Telegram series on what led South Carolina to throw out the machines in 2000, Oliverio said his stance represents small business owners who will be hurt if increased gambling expenditures reduce other forms of in-state purchasing.

He was joined by three other senators who opposed the bill: Andy McKenzie, R-Ohio, Mark Burnette, D-Greenbrier and Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha.

Michael Queen, senior partner with Queen, Hunter, Park & Farmer Inc., a public relations firm, also held a morning press conference. He introduced John Kindt, a University of Illinois professor who has researched the economic effects of legalized gambling nationally.

Queen, whose lobbying is funded through a coalition which includes the West Virginia Council of Churches and West Virginia Farm Bureau, and Kindt, who receives no outside funding, also met with the occasional supporters of video poker.

Tom Lange, president of the West Virginia Education Association, was among them.

Kindt cited several economic and human resource statistics, including one from Georgia, which has already instituted a scholarship tied to gambling fund. He said that, in addition to college money, the Georgia program has brought a gambling addiction to 17 percent of 13-to-19 year olds.

Lange, however, told the anti-gambling group its efforts were unrealistic and that gray machines were here to stay.

"If this governor doesn't put in legislation to reduce, restrict and regulate `gray machines,' it will just be business as usual," Lange said.

Other legislators expressed similar sentiments.

"He's just grandstanding," said Sen. William Sharpe, D-Lewis, of Oliverio.

Sharpe, who said he will not decide how to vote until he sees a final version of the bill, believes a lot of the fighting is about tapping into potential tax funds instead of banning the machines.

On the House side, Del. Roger Romine, D-Doddridge, said about 65 percent of comments from his constituents are against the bill, as is he. In contrast, Del. Mary Poling, D-Barbour, said her constituents views are running about half and half.

A Senate version of the bill is now in Finance Subcommittee, on which local senators Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, and Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel, sit.

A House version of the bill is also in Finance Committee and will be the subject of a public-input session this afternoon.

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

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