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Video poker Immoral or bad policy?

by Malia Rulon

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- Gov. Bob Wise's bill to regulate and tax video poker machines has unearthed new debates, statistics and anecdotes -- but the underlining differences over the legislation are nothing new to West Virginia.

Video poker machines have been a colorful issue at the state Capitol for years, often with the notion that something must be done about the under-the-table gambling empire that has sprung out of a loophole or "gray area" in the law.

The so-called gray 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.

Wise's proposal to restrict the machines to 9,000 statewide and no more than five at each bar or club would regulate a previously unregulated industry and in the meantime give education a pipeline to what some legislative leaders have estimated could be $250 million in untaxed revenue.

"I think you can disagree all over on this bill, but the one thing it does is a departure from the status quo," House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores said after the House passed the bill 66-34 Friday.

Opponents to the bill have been characterized as morale crusaders who think any bill with the word "lottery" in it is a sin.

And to some extent, opposition to the bill, HB2205, has been divided along party lines, with 22 of the 100-member House's 25 Republicans voting against it. All six Senate Republicans have vowed to vote against it next week.

But the group also includes fiscal conservatives who think the answer to the state's never-ending financial problems is economic development and cutting costs, even if it means cutting services.

"Nothing about this bill is right," Delegate Rusty Webb, R-Kanawha, told House members Friday night. "We shouldn't be spending 60 days on poker machines. We should be spending 60 days on real fundamental economic development."

Minority Leader Charles Trump said he and others worry about opening the door for the state to get into a business with enough money to seduce even the most well-intentioned Legislature.

"The government's appetite for dollars is insatiable," said Trump, R-Morgan. "You can imagine the argument another three years down the road. What's the difference 3,000 more machines would make? They're legalized already anyway."

Trump also said many delegates are concerned that the House bill is tied to pay raises for teachers, correctional officers, state police troopers and other public employees.

"Linking funding with the basic operations of government, making the government dependent on this revenue source I think is very dangerous and I think it is unprecedented in West Virginia," he said.

House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, said the two were linked together to get lawmakers to realize the state needs additional revenue if it's going to hand out pay raises.

There is another component to the opposition that wants the state to do what it has done every year: Nothing. Let it alone. Leave it be.

"The possibility of winning in the future is more important then the possibility of defeat today," said Amores, who acknowledged a great deal of "private pressure and discussion" from a lobby that didn't want the issue settled this year.

The West Virginia Council of Churches and Mike Queen, a lobbyist for an antigambling coalition, both submitted proposals to give the governor's administration a year to come up with a plan.

"I think it would be inaccurate to characterize the opposition to the bill as members of one philosophy," said Amores. "There are people who oppose it on moral grounds and those who oppose it because they think it's bad public policy.

"I think the reason the bill passed is that between those two spectrums there is a middle ground that says you can reduce, regulate and restrict. And then there is a middle ground that realizes that grown adults should be able to choose what they do. ... You recognize the inherent vice in things and then you make appropriate regulations."

Amores said it's a misconception to argue that Wise's plan is an "expansion of gambling." He pointed out that if there are currently more than 12,000 machines throughout the state and the bill would license only 9,000, then the bill is a reduction, not an expansion.

Trump agreed, but said the bill does represent an expansion of "legalized" gambling.

"Many of us think the better course of action would be to ban them completely," he said.

During his floor speech, Delegate A. James Manchin, D-Marion, touched on a theme heard throughout the Capitol during this year's legislative session.

He said the bill's opponents keep telling delegates to do what is right.

"How come these opponents don't think what we do might be right?" he asked, adding that the bill would restrict what is now an unregulated industry.

Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse said the opposition to the bill has worked hard to get its message out.

"I'm among those who oppose the bill, and I think we brought up a lot of good points," said Sprouse, R-Kanawha. "We've made people think about what they're doing."

Trump said "ultimately, every member has to decide that question for themselves. And that is the point of the debate." ------

On the Net: West Virginia Legislature: http://www.legis.state.wv.us

Alcohol Beverage Control Administration: http://www.state.wv.us/abcc

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