Table games bill signed

Without public ceremony, Gov. Joe Manchin signed into law a bill authorizing county option elections for casino-style table games at the state’s four racetracks Wednesday afternoon — one of numerous bills he signed in the privacy of the governor’s office.

“Obviously, we’re very, very happy,” said racetracks lobbyist John Cavacini. “It’s the culmination of two years of being faced with the threat of competition from Pennsylvania.“

“I truly believe the racetracks will do exactly what they promised they will do, which is to preserve revenues, preserve jobs, and add 2,000 new jobs,” he said.

One of the leading opponents of the bill, John Carey of the West Virginia Values Coalition, said he was disappointed Manchin had signed the bill (HB2718). He said it could set the groundwork for further expansion of gambling in the future.

“It’s a bad bill, and I didn’t think the governor wanted it to become part of his legacy,” said Carey. He said he was particularly concerned by findings in the legislation that declare that racetrack table games are in “the best interest of the state.”

“With the governor’s signature, we have clearly elevated table games to the level of issues like health care or the education of our children,” he said.

Carey said he believes that “best interest” provision — along with the governor’s endorsement — eventually will be used to justify additional forms of state-sanctioned gambling, possibly including riverboat gaming or free-standing casinos.

“I would have preferred that he had not signed it, and just allowed it to become law without his signature,” he said.

He said the coalition has not decided whether to pursue a court challenge of the new law. To date, only the West Virginia Family Foundation has announced plans for a legal challenge.

Meanwhile, operators of the two racetracks in the Northern Panhandle tracks wasted no time getting the issue on the ballot for voters in those counties.

On Tuesday, the Ohio County Commission set a June 9 special election on whether to authorize table games at the Wheeling Island Racetrack.

Mountaineer Racetrack and Gaming Resort executives announced Wednesday that they will ask Hancock County commissioners on April 5 to authorize an early June special election.

Cavacini said officials with Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center in Nitro are scheduled to meet with Kanawha County commissioners next week to discuss options for a special election.

He said it could be several weeks before officials with Charles Town Races in Jefferson County make a decision on when to ask for a special election.

“They’re still in the position of trying to determine how much of a campaign they need to run,” Cavacini said.

While Manchin frequently holds ceremonies to sign bills passed during the regular session, he told reporters earlier Wednesday that he would not do so for the table games bill, since it was not an administration bill.

Manchin had said on numerous occasions previously that he would sign a table games bill into law if it provided for county option elections, and if an adequate portion of the state’s proceeds would be used to fund in-home care for senior citizens.

Also Wednesday, the governor announced he had vetoed a bill intended to curb a growing problem with metal theft (HB2748), saying it went too far in allowing law enforcement officials to enter the premises of scrap metal dealers to look for stolen property.

He said that provision violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Utility companies had sought the bill to crack down on a statewide surge in thefts of metal, including copper wire in power and phone lines.