by Malia Rulon
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLESTON -- Members of the House of Delegates rose Wednesday for the second time in two weeks to debate Gov. Bob Wise's plan to regulate and tax gambling on 9,000 video poker machines before voting 62-34 to approve the measure.
The House passed a different version of the bill 66-34 during the regular 60-day legislative session that ended Saturday.
A 10-member House-Senate conference committee charged with reconciling that version with a Senate version ran out of time, so Wise called a special session to allow the Legislature to start over on a compromise.
Following the House's action on Wednesday, the Senate gave the bill, HB102, the first of its three public readings.
The bill will be read a second time today, and several lawmakers indicated that amendments are likely to be discussed.
The most significant question is whether the Senate will amend the bill to include three years of teacher pay raises, instead of the one year at $1,000 offered in the bill.
"We're confident that this will happen by tomorrow," said West Virginia Federation of Teachers representative Judy Hale. "The raises are not in there now, but they could be by tomorrow."
The federation and the West Virginia Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, are pushing for at least $5,000 in raises over the next three years. They also want incentive raises for teachers through their 35th year of service.
The WVEA has threatened to try blocking passage of the bill if the multiyear pay raises aren't included.
The House, on the other hand, passed the bill over the objections of delegates who want to stop the state's dependence on gambling revenue.
"Would that I could find the words to shift the course we are on," Minority Leader Charles Trump, R-Morgan, told members. "I think this is a bad thing that we are about to do. I don't think it will produce real economic development or real prosperity."
Delegate Rusty Webb told members his remarks would be "markedly more reserved than they were a week and a half ago, but they will be no less earnest."
"Gambling owns West Virginia now," said Webb, R-Kanawha.
Delegate Eustice Frederick, D-Mercer, said he was concerned about including a Senate proposal in the bill that increases the maximum bet on video slot machines at the state's racetracks from $2 to $5.
He said the provision means more of the state's budget will be based on gambling.
The increase is expected to bring the state an additional $79 million a year.
"I say that's risky. That's very bad public policy to do this," Frederick said.
Delegate John Doyle said the bill's main purpose is to get the so-called gray machines out of convenience stores, gas stations and laundries, not to get the combined $113 million the racetrack bet increase and video poker machine tax are projected to raise during the coming fiscal year.
"We have such a seriously flawed economy that a tax rate that is average compared nationally is not enough to bring in the money needed to provide basic services to our citizens," said Doyle, D-Jefferson. "We are attempting to use gambling to tide us over until we can get a real economy."
Four delegates were absent Wednesday. Four others changed their vote since the House last voted on the bill. Delegates Gil White, R-Ohio, Sheirl Fletcher, R-Monongalia, and Sally Susman, D-Raleigh, went from a "yes" vote to a "no." Delegate Dale Martin, D-Putnam, changed his vote from a "no" to a "yes."
Churches statewide that are opposed to the measure planned to ring their bells simultaneously at 3 p.m. Thursday in a protest, said the Rev. Nathan Wilson of the West Virginia Council of Churches.
Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall said he expects the vote in the Senate to be close again. The Senate voted last week to approve the measure 18-16.
"We've debated the merits of this bill. We've heard the same philosophical arguments over and over again," Kessler said. "Either you're for it or you're against it."
Wise's bill would legalize and tax the winnings from video poker machines and restrict the machines to areas not accessible to children.
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.
On the Net: West Virginia Legislature: http://www.legis.state.wv.us
Alcohol Beverage Control Administration: http://www.state.wv.us/abcc