by Randy Coleman
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLESTON -- Tag, you're it.
To legislators concerned the number of video poker machines in West Virginia will not stop at the 9,000 limit Gov. Bob Wise has proposed, Wise's response is: That's up to you.
Sen. Andy McKenzie and others who oppose the legalization of so-called gray machines point to the increase of video lottery gambling at the state's four race tracks. Between 1995 and last month, the number of machines at Mountaineer Racetrack and Gaming Resort increased from 360 to 1,892; at Wheeling Downs, 400 to 1,293; and at Tri-State Race Track & Gaming Center 370 to 964. Charles Town Races installed 573 machines in 1998. Last month there were 1,944.
"It's 9,000 now. But it will be 12,000 or 15,000 next time. It won't stop," says McKenzie, R-Ohio. "It will be just like the tracks."
Wise responds, "The difference between what I'm proposing and the tracks is that the Lottery Commission sets the number of machines at the tracks.
"Here, the Legislature sets it. The number of machines will stop wherever the Legislature wants it to stop."
When asked whether he would ever recommend that the Legislature increase the number of machines, Wise says, "I don't foresee it. It could happen, but I don't foresee it."
Laying the responsibility for expanding gambling on the Legislature is part of Wise's strategy to persuade lawmakers to pass his proposal to legalize video poker machine gambling, tax the proceeds and use the new income for scholarships and other projects.
Video poker machines currently are legal if used for amusement purposes. The problem, Wise and others have said, is the machines have become illegal gambling devices where players receive winnings.
Wise's bill is pending in the House and Senate finance committees.
Criticisms of Wise's proposal have mounted from the moment he made it during a Capitol press conference the day before former Gov. Cecil Underwood made his final State of the State address in January 2000. Wise challenged Underwood to use tax revenue from video poker machines to finance the state's unfunded PROMISE scholarship program, which would give tuition money to high-achieving students.
Wise made the plan the cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign and has campaigned for it in more than a dozen high schools since his inaugural.
Some Democrats and most Republicans have criticized the plan, insisting that it would expand gambling.
Wise upped the ante during his own State of the State address in February when he added anticipated revenue of $22 million from gray machines in his fiscal 2002 budget.
The amount is less than 1 percent of the overall proposed $2.75 billion budget, leading some Republicans to say the proposal is too much of a headache for too little gain.
"It's only $22 million. Never has $22 million been spent so many ways. Never has $22 million been so important," says Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha.
Wise says Sprouse and other opponents are missing the point.
"In some ways it's minute. But next year it goes to $100 million and it's not so minute any more," Wise says.
Wise administration officials say the first-year revenue estimate of between $20 and $30 million is conservative. The plan possibly won't be enacted until January 2002 and "it may take a while for the full impact to be realized," says Wise spokesman Bill Case.
Administration officials expect revenue from the machines to be $100 million by the end of the second year.
"This budget is so tight. There's no fat in it. There's no room. We prepared this budget, and without adding any new programs we were already $11 million down. So the gray machine money becomes vital for any kind of investment we're going to make in this state, whether it's scholarships or whether it's basic education," Wise says.
Wise says he's making the best of a bad situation.
"For me, this is about finally getting a resolution to address a problem. The number of machines is growing rapidly, and they're in places nobody ever dreamed they would be, gas stations, grocery stores," Wise says.
"This, for me, is about getting a final resolution to and deciding which way we're going to go. And it's about getting them away from children."
On the Net: Gov. Bob Wise: http://www.state.wv.us/governor/
On the Net: West Virginia Legislature: http://www.legis.state.wv.us