By DOUG McKINNEY
CHARLESTON -- West Virginia lawmakers have wrapped up the 2007 legislative session, and the major piece of legislation emerging from the 60-day session was the bill permitting racetracks to add table games, pending approval by voters of the four counties where the tracks are located.
In the last election, the gambling interests spent nearly $400,000 in direct contributions to their favored candidates, and who knows how many thousands more in indirect, unreported support.
They were rewarded with legislation that means the first step in expanding gambling in a way that will change our state forever, if voters eventually approve table game referendums. In fact, the Associated Press recently reported that West Virginia will join only one other state -- Iowa -- in regard to allowing venues that provide racing, slots and table games in the same locations.
It is, of course, foolish to pretend, as the Democrats do, that when voters approved the lottery two decades ago they were also giving their assent to table games. But our lawmakers have chosen to take the position that the initiative at that time intended to permit whatever they mean it to say today.
Court challenges will undoubtedly result, and rightfully so. Voters all over the state, not just in four counties, deserve the opportunity to express their will in regard to this massive gamble of our state's future.
The gambling interests have promised hundreds of jobs and vast economic expansion in return for the ability to provide table games. It was truly fascinating to watch as the promises piled up and various regions saw the pot sweetened in exchange for the support of the table games legislation.
A few more thousand promised here, a few more thousand promised there -- and pretty soon, the votes were in order and the critics were scolded for not caring about jobs or the economy.
For me and many others, our increasing reliance on gambling to solve our economic problems sends a terrible signal to our children and grandchildren. But, sadly, this gambling expansion should have been expected from a state whose TV and radio commercials ask us to play the West Virginia Lottery, but to "play responsibly," while at the same time buying billboards offering help if you are a problem gambler.
There are sound, proven and lasting ways to grow a state's economy, but most Democratic legislators refused to address those methods in any meaningful way.
Decisive reductions in taxes have proven time and again to encourage new investment and expand the economy, but the Democrats did little but nibble around the edges of meaningful tax reforms. Instead, they cast their lot with the gambling lobbyists, and opened the door to a new era of government preying even further on one of the most addictive and destructive behaviors known to society.
Aside from gambling legislation, were there any other major accomplishments this session?
Clearly, no. Long-sought pay raises were cobbled together for teachers and state workers, but not enough to forestall more headaches on this issue in the near future. Lawmakers agreed to sell tobacco bonds in the hopes of a $750 million windfall rather than a higher payout drawn out over a longer period of time.
West Virginians will have to keep paying the state's "temporary" gas tax, a few more judges were added around the state, and the privilege tax, which should be eliminated, was instead softened somewhat by a provision that would help new residents avoid it, which was better than nothing.
But completely ignored by this Legislature were social conservatives of all parties, with pro-life bills ignored and gambling initiatives front and center.
In the end, it is the table games legislation for which this session will be remembered. In essence, voters chose a legislature in the 2006 elections that decided the best way to represent their constituents this session was to expand our state's ability to attract gamblers.
Over the next few months, the Republican Party will begin recruiting candidates for the 2008 election. I personally invite any Republican to step forward who will fight for the kind of economic development our state desperately needs - candidates who believe in lower taxes, a fairer court system, an economic climate that encourages businesses to locate here that provide good-paying jobs and benefits, and the conservative values our state holds dear.
By November 2008, voters deserve to have a clear choice between candidates who want to do their jobs by reforming our tax and judicial systems and promoting our shared values, or candidates who believe their primary responsibility is to cater to those who operate the racetracks, slot machines and table games.
McKinney is chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party.