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Lawmakers to question head of Wheeling racetrack

Lawmakers and the head of Wheeling Island Racetrack and Casino are set to meet today to discuss the future of table games in the state.

The conversation comes days after the casino announced it would renew its annual $2.5 million table games licensing fee. It current license expires at the end of the month.

Wheeling Island officials said they renewed the license in hopes the Legislature would reduce the fee in the future. Earlier in the year some lawmakers thought the casino officials were bluffing in the attempt to get a tax break.

Casino representatives told state lawmakers during the recent legislative session the fee was too high and they might eliminate table games without a financial break.

Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, led the charge in the Senate to pass a bill that would have decreased the fees by $1 million for each of four state racetrack casinos.

The effort was questioned by fellow senators but ended up passing that chamber by a 24-8 margin. It died in the House, when then-House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, didn't bring it before the committee.

At the time, Miley said some delegates questioned whether the casino needed the fee reduction. Table games could be a loss leader for the operations, Miley said, something that might lose money but bring customers into the facility to spend more money elsewhere.

Prezioso is frustrated. 

"I was probably the one who questioned it more in the Senate than anybody, and obviously the House called their bluff, and they chummed up and got back in the game," Prezioso said Thursday between interim meetings in Wheeling.

"Being the chair of finance, I feel like I have a little egg on my face," he said.

Prezioso is one of the leaders of the joint standing committee on finance, slated to meet this morning with Wheeling Island President and General Manager Osi Imomoh.

He met Imomoh earlier in the week and expects the executive to present reports about table game revenue and other financial information about his casino and racetrack.

The fact that Wheeling Island renewed its license after telling lawmakers it couldn't afford to leaves it with something to prove, Prezioso said. The casino needs to defend its position.

"It certainly doesn't posture them in a good poker face from here on in," he said.  

Discussions are needed, and the timing seems better now than during a regular session, Prezioso said.

The fee-reduction bill came up during a House and Senate squabble over measures involving more pay for certain magistrates and authorization of a special tax district for a new baseball stadium and other facilities in Morgantown.

"Look, whether you're for the gaming industry or against it, it's part of our budget process now," Prezioso said. "It's an integral part that certainly needs some consideration when you're setting up a budget."

He said perhaps the casinos could be assessed fees based on the number of tables they operate. 

Calling that only one option, Prezioso a conversation about the future of the industry in the state is needed in light of other gambling facilities cropping up in Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

 The use of the fee revenue also could come up, Prezioso said.

Imomoh is the only person on the agenda for today's meeting. It starts at 9 a.m. at the Wheeling Island hotel.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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