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House amends video poker measure

by Malia Rulon

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- The House of Delegates on Thursday left essentially intact a committee proposal that shifts proposed taxes on video poker machines from PROMISE scholarships to pay raises for teachers and other public employees.

The House spent less than two hours debating amendments to the bill, beating back several Republican attempts to gut the bill.

Gov. Bob Wise's proposal to tax the so-called gray machines had earmarked part of the expected revenue for his touted PROMISE Scholarship Program, but the Finance Committee changed the bill to use the revenue to fund raises for teachers, correctional officers, state police troopers and other public employees.

The tax is expected to generate $22 million for the state this year and more than $100 million in subsequent years. This year's take is expected to cover most but not all of the $27 million pay raise package Wise proposed.

The bill, HB2205, would legalize and tax payouts from the gray machines, which would be limited to 9,000 statewide and no more than five at each bar or club. Veteran and fraternal organizations would be limited to 10.

Video poker machines 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.

The afternoon's biggest debate involved an amendment relating to just 2 percent of the revenue the tax is expected to generate.

Under the bill, the state would get 30 percent of net terminal revenue, the Lottery Commission would get 2 percent, and municipalities where the machines are located would get 2 percent.

An amendment from Delegate Lidella Hrutkey, D-Logan, altered the 2 percent city take to include counties.

Under the adopted change, revenue from every machine in a county would be divided between the cities and county based on the percentage of residents living in cities and unincorporated areas of a county.

"We think this is fair," said Finance Vice Chairman John Doyle, D-Jefferson. "This seems a way to help our municipalities, but it would also help our counties."

Six amendments proposed by Republican delegates were rejected with little debate.

One would have reduced the allowable number of machines from 9,000 to 5,000 and another would have banned the machines entirely.

"I think the legalizing of 9,000 machines is not consistent with the values and aspirations for the future of the majority of our citizens," said House Minority Leader Charles Trump, R-Morgan.

Trump also introduced an amendment to void the video poker machine legislation if one part of the bill is found unconstitutional. Two other proposals would have allowed counties to vote on the issue.

"This issue really in many ways is a neighborhood issue," Trump said, comparing it to a county referendum adopted earlier Thursday on the issue of Sunday hunting.

Another rejected proposal from Delegate Mike Hall, R-Putnam, would have required machines to pay out between 92 and 98 percent. The current bill allows the payout to be set between 80 and 95 percent.

The bill is up for a final vote by the House on Friday.

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