W.Va. going to the dogs, horses

For years, some people maintained we West Virginians were allowing ourselves to be victimized by what at one time were called “the interests.” Coal companies, it was said, had governors and legislators under their thumbs. More recently, some have suggested chemical firms, along with oil and gas drillers, ought to be added to “the interests.”

Well, maybe they’re right – but are pointing their fingers in the wrong direction.

Think about it: What coal baron would have the nerve to demand the state pay out $92 million a year to subsidize his industry? What gas driller or chemical company has the nerve to insist West Virginians cannot live without it?

Last spring, reporter Casey Junkins looked into the haul – and that’s the word for it – reaped by the dog and horse racing industries in West Virginia. He found the total was about $92 million a year.

Most of that, about $66 million, goes to the horse folks. During the year before Junkins investigated, they raked in nearly $57 million to fund “purses” for winners at the racetracks in Chester and Charles Town. Another $9 million went to thoroughbred breeders.

Dog racers at the Wheeling and Cross Lanes tracks are not exactly shortchanged. Their industry received $20 million in money for “purses” and another $6 million for breeders. Incidentally, one of the breeders, Freda Tomblin, happens to be the governor’s mother. During 2012, she received $220,495 from the breeders fund.

The money comes from legalized gambling at the four tracks. It is raked off – by law – to go to the racing industry.

And the horse- and dog-racing industries benefit from another section of state law: The four tracks cannot operate their gambling casinos and machines unless they offer horse or dog racing. The casinos themselves are a state-sanctioned monopoly, but that’s a story for another day.

As I’ve pointed out previously, money now diverted to the dog and horse racers could do an enormous amount of good for West Virginia. How many new schools would that much money build?

Or how much of a pay raise could the state give school teachers with $92 million a year?

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and leaders in the Legislature finally have worked up enough courage to take a tiny bite out of the racers’ pot of gold. Desperation – a state budget dramatically out of balance – prompted them to propose the breeders funds be reduced by about 15 percent. But that’s a one-time thing.

Rest assured, those in the racing industry and their highly capable lobbyists already have been stalking the corridors of the Capitol, warning of doom and gloom if the cuts go through. Why, the tracks have to have dog and horse racing to attract gamblers, they insist.

Nonsense. When they are being candid, some in the casino business admit they could do without racing quite nicely. A few even say they’d be happier if it went away.

Think about “the interests” of the past. Indeed, coal barons in the past were known to use state government to block unionization, fight proposals to keep miners safer, and lobby against changes needed to safeguard our soil, water and air.

But how many of them would have had the gall to ask for state laws requiring, in effect, that their industry exist? How many would have thought they could get away with seeking $92 million a year in state subsidies?

That $92 million a year would just about close the hole in the state budget. Yet Tomblin and lawmakers are content merely to reduce the racers’ take. What does that say about the power the industry wields in Charleston?

Yes, indeed, West Virginians are being victimized by “the interests.” But they may not be who you think they are.

Coal operators are under fire from President Barack Obama’s administration. Maybe the mining companies need to buy some race horses and greyhounds.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at mmyer@theintelligencer.net