Table gaming bill passage looking doubtful

WHEELING – Citing a lack of support in the House of Delegates, Jim Simms said the bill to reduce annual table gambling fees by $1 million is “very unlikely to pass.”

“If the session ends without us getting relief, will have to evaluate what our business model would look like without table games,” said Simms, outgoing president and general manager of Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, while on his way back from the West Virginia State Capitol Monday.

Simms has said Delaware North Companies, parent company of the Wheeling track, may not renew the facility’s table gambling license in July if the $2.5 million annual fee remains in place. Even before paying the fee, the track is on schedule to lose $1 million in 2013 by running its blackjack, poker, roulette and other table games. He said 105 track workers’ jobs are tied directly to table gambling.

“The decision to keep or eliminate table games will be made by Delaware North,” said Simms, who has taken a job with a new Delaware North casino in southwest Ohio. Osi Imomoh will officially be the new president and general manager at Wheeling Island on April 15.

“It is going to be hard for us to continue to support a losing venture,” Simms said of the table games.

Monday, Simms said he went to Charleston to meet with Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, Speaker of the House Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, and House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. Last week, Armstead said he wanted to see financial records from the Wheeling Island track before the House would even consider the bill.

” went to Charleston to answer any questions they may have. I did not want them to think we were ducking anything,” Simms said of the legislators, noting he offered to share the financial figures with the lawmakers.

“At the end of the day, there just does not appear to be enough support for it,” he added.

Last Friday, Kessler stressed that legislation he introduced would not be officially dead until the session ends this Saturday. He could not be reached for comment Monday. In its current form, the bill would lower the annual table gambling fees from $2.5 to $1.5 million for the Wheeling track, as well as for Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort in Chester, the Mardi Gras West Virginia Casino & Hotel near Charleston and the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in the state’s Eastern Panhandle.

Bills must pass in both the Senate and House before midnight Saturday so that they can be signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The still heavily Democrat-controlled Senate passed the legislation early last week by a vote of 23-10, with one member failing to cast a vote, before sending it to the House for consideration.

Last year, Mountain State voters elected 46 Republicans to the 100-member House, which is the largest number of GOP members in many years.

“The Republicans don’t want to support it,” Simms said. “They seem to feel that we got what we wanted a few years ago – and that now we just need to deal with the circumstances as they exist.”

West Virginia Lottery Commission records show that not all tracks are pulling in similar dollar amounts. Wheeling Island generated about $5.3 million worth of revenue from table gambling from July 1 through the end of February. During the same time period, the Charles Town track saw about $104.7 million from table gambling – nearly 20 times as much as the Wheeling facility.

Prior to Kessler introducing his bill, Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, and Jack Yost, D-Brooke, joined others to sponsor legislation that would reduce the annual fee from $2.5 million to $1 million for all four casinos – a $500,000 annual difference from the Kessler legislation. This bill would also have reduced the tax rate on table games from 35 percent to 25 percent, but there was no movement on this legislation.