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Club owners discuss legal action against video poker law

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- About 75 people with a stake in video poker met downtown Monday night to talk litigation.

"It's like the Boston Tea Party," one attendee joked, alluding to what some club and bar owners say is an unfair taxation on their livelihoods.

Chris Wakim, president of the Club Association of West Virginia, was on site with out-of-state attorneys the association has hired. In a closed meeting, the group discussed proposed legal action.

Wakim, a Wheeling bar owner, said the effort will likely begin by seeking an emergency injunction to halt implementation of a new law that would legalize and tax video poker.

Some association members wrote checks to support the lawsuit. An anonymous attendee from the vending side of the business said many small interests are pledging $500-$1,000 each.

"He just asked them to raise their hand (if they support the lawsuit) and everyone stood up," the same man said, reporting on progress one hour into the meeting.

After the meeting, however, a Clarksburg Elks representative said that organization will have no part in a state or federal lawsuit. Mike Labdik, exalted ruler of the lodge, said the days of such open gambling are over.

The Elks Lodge was raided by state police last Wednesday, as was the private Village Square Conference Center in which it is located.

Jim Long -- administrator of Clarksburg Moose Lodge 52 where the meeting was conducted -- said the key issue among lawsuit supporters is the taxation rate.

The new law begins Jan. 1. Under it, video poker income will be taxed on a sliding scale between 30 and 50 percent depending on overall income. Other state and county taxes apply, as well.

"I can do without the (old) machines. I can do without the state's machines. That's not the issue," Long said. "But how do you justify taxing up to 52 percent?"

Long and other attendees said the 30 percent tax rate that state racetracks pay is fair, however. He said attendees are after that kind of post-passage compromise rather than "derailing" the new law.

Attendees said another point of contention is a bidding process for the bulk of machines. Wakim has said the bidding favors large interests such as hotel chains over the small bars and fraternal organizations the association represents.

Monday's meeting was the second concerning the proposed lawsuit. An earlier meeting was conducted in Wheeling and a future meeting is scheduled in the southern part of the state, Long said.

Bill Case, a spokesman for Gov. Bob Wise, has said state attorneys believe the law is up to any challenge the association can bring.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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