WHEELING — The next run for racing greyhounds in West Virginia could be to Florida — another state that has dog racing — or to adoption and a new home if the greyhound breeders’ fund is eliminated by the West Virginia Legislature.
Greyhound racing in West Virginia presently employs about 1,700 people both directly and indirectly at the state’s two dog racing tracks at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino in Cross Lanes, W.Va., according to data compiled in a 2014 report by the Spectrum Gaming Group commissioned by the Legislature. More than 1,100 of the employees — about two-thirds of the total — work in Wheeling.
The number of potential human job losses has Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, concerned.
“It could be a sad day for the Ohio Valley if this passes,” he said.
Senate Bill 437 had its first of three readings on the Senate floor Friday, and is expected to come up for a vote on Monday.
The legislation would discontinue the West Virginia Racing Commission’s special account known as the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund, a fund that distributes about $15 million in casino revenue to the breeders each year.
The money is placed in the fund by the tracks, who are required to contribute to it a percentage of revenue generated by their video lottery machines.
Under the measure, the $15 million would instead go to the state’s general revenue fund as way of helping to fill a projected $450 million deficit in the state budget next year. The bill doesn’t affect a similar fund set up for the state’s thoroughbred horse breeders.
Maroney is a member of the Senate Finance Committee who advanced SB 437 to the Senate floor this week, although he expressed his opposition to the bill during debate.
“I’m adamantly against it,” he said following Friday’s floor session. “There are misconceptions about it in terms of public perception. This money is not a tax paid by taxpayers. It’s money that comes from revenues from the machines. … It may result in $15 million more into the general revenue fund. But if you look at it, there will also be less money going into the machines. … There are also other factors that could affect revenue. But this can’t all be just about money.”
The state would lose not only the income tax revenue created by the employees, but would also have to pay out their unemployment benefits, Maroney said, adding there would be “a snowball effect” as related businesses suffer from the loss of dog racing in West Virginia.
“And when you factor in common sense, we lose money,” he said. “Not only would we lose money, but we also would have lost a part of Wheeling’s iconic heritage. It (dog racing) has been there a long time. In my opinion, it’s devastating.
“Once you’ve lost racing, the track is not a racino and (video lottery and table gaming) could be gone with a referendum. What would happen then? The tracks could lose their protection.”
Maroney said this makes him question the motives behind lawmakers as they discuss eliminating the greyhound subsidies. He believes SB 437 could pass the Legislature.
“Unfortunately, I am concerned it might,” he said. “It was introduced in both the House and Senate, and this tells me there is a faction of people that want this to go through. It makes me wonder why? What’s the real reason when the money is a wash or a loss for the state?”
As for the canines who likely would be unemployed if breeders subsidies were eliminated, Maroney said he wasn’t certain what would happen to them.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t be ignored or not taken care of,” he said. “For me, my focus is on trying to keep the racing there. It’s a sad day when this goes away.”
Carey Theil is executive director of Grey2K USA Worldwide, a group seeking to eliminate all greyhound racing. He said in the past two months about 1,300 canines have actively been racing in West Virginia, and he suspects there could be about another 200 dogs who are either injured or waiting to take the track in the state.
He suspects many of the greyhounds will go to race in Florida, where still a dozen dog tracks are in operation.
“We also would see probably a record number of greyhounds being adopted,” Theil said. “That’s what we’ve seen in other states when racing was eliminated. We have not seen in any state a large number of dogs being put down. What we have seen is this being used as a scare tactic, but after legislation has passed it has turned out to not be accurate.”
SB 437 includes $1 million for greyhound adoption, and this provision was placed at the recommendation of Grey2K, according to Theil.
He said the state of New Hampshire had as many as 1,000 racing greyhounds when the state acted to phase out breeders subsidies in 2009. The following year, the state set a record for greyhound adoptions as 510 of the dogs found homes.
There was a record of five greyhounds being euthanized, but their deaths came following injuries sustained on the track, according to Theil.
Greyhound racing was banned in New Hampshire in 2010.
Theil estimates Massachusetts had a similar number of dogs to West Virginia when subsidies were banned there in 2008. The following year, 781 of the dogs were adopted, while 11 were euthanized following injuries.
“We would probably see 600 to 800 dogs adopted in West Virginia if greyhound racing is stopped,” Theil said. “The others would race elsewhere.”
Steve Sarras, a Wheeling greyhound breeder who is president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association, did not return messages seeking comment.