Bid to ax greyhound racing funds rejected in West Virginia

FILE - In this Aug. 8, 2014 file photo, greyhounds compete at Wheeling Island Racetrack in Wheeling, W.Va. West Virginia senators on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, rejected a bill to cut state funding for the greyhound racing industry, three years after Gov. Jim Justice vetoed similar legislation. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via AP, File)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia senators on Wednesday rejected a bill to cut state funding for the greyhound racing industry, three years after Gov. Jim Justice vetoed similar legislation.

The bill was defeated on a 23-11 vote. It would have ended $17 million in subsidies that benefit dog racing breeders and handlers at the state’s two racetracks, the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Nitro and the Wheeling Island Hotel Casino and Racetrack.

The track at Wheeling Island, sandwiched in the state’s Northern Panhandle between Ohio and Pennsylvania, also has felt the pinch of competition from new casinos in Pennsylvania.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the industry is outdated and inhumane to greyhounds. He wanted the subsidies steered toward more important priorities such as health or education.

“Whether we do it this year or next year or the year after, it’s going to happen,” Carmichael, a Republican, said in a floor speech. “Greyhound racing is ending across all of America.”

The bill would not have outlawed greyhound racing in the state, but opponents have said the bill would doom the industry that provides up to 1,700 jobs.

Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, noted that a hospital in Wheeling closed last fall, and the city “can’t afford to take another blow like this right now.”

The bill would have set aside $3 million to retrain displaced workers and $1 million to promote greyhound adoptions. Residents who adopt greyhounds would have received a one-time $500 tax credit.

During dog racing’s heyday, there were about 60 greyhound tracks in the U.S. But the rise in slot machines and table games has led to racing’s decline. Over the past decade, dog tracks were eliminated in Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Florida voters in 2018 approved a measure to ban betting on greyhound races starting in 2021. In October, the only greyhound track in Arkansas agreed to phase out greyhound racing by the end of 2022. Besides West Virginia, other active dog racing tracks still exist in Alabama, Iowa and Texas.

Ihlenfeld said West Virginia should take advantage of the dog betting dollars that will be lost in Florida.

“Instead of kicking this to the curb, we ought to embrace it,” Ihlenfeld said.

Like other states, West Virginia started the subsidies for the racing industry when slot machines and table games arrived. Money for the West Virginia Racing Commission’s Greyhound Breeding Development Fund comes from a portion of those games at the greyhound tracks. The fund in turn provides much of the purse money kennel operators earn when they win or finish well in the races.

“We ought to be concerned about cutting the legs out of an industry at the drop of a hat,” said another bill opponent, Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison.

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