Backlash Against Slot Machines in W.Va. West Virginia is one of a handful of states that allows slot machines and other forms of video gambling in neighborhood bars, as well as at racetracks. But while other states are considering expanding their gambling options, many West Virginians are now having second thoughts.
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Backlash Against Slot Machines in W.Va.

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Backlash Against Slot Machines in W.Va.

Backlash Against Slot Machines in W.Va.

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A debate that's played out in states across the country for years whether to legalize slot machines and video gambling at race tracks and other locations. Tomorrow, Maryland state legislature takes up the governor's proposal to legalize slots. It's also a big issue in the current governor's race in Kentucky. Six states already allowed slots and other forms of video gambling, not just in casinos or race tracks but in neighborhood bars. One of those is West Virginia. But many people who are there are having second thoughts.

Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports that people are torn between socially conservative beliefs and the need for jobs.

SCOTT FINN: A few miles outside Charleston, West Virginia, up a narrow, twisting road, you'll find what used to be Dave's Grocery Store. Except now, it's Dave's Tavern and Grill.

Mr. DAVE LAWRENCE(ph) (Owner, Dave's Tavern and Grill): And then back at where my pool room is that - was that my dairy cooler. Oh, we just knocked that wall down, put a pool table and pinball machine, dart boards, stuff like that back there.

FINN: Four years ago, Dave Lawrence's little grocery store was on the verge of bankruptcy. Then he found his salvation - the five slot machines he keeps in a room out back. Without them, he says, he'd soon be out of business.

Mr. LAWRENCE: I have a real good beer business, but it wouldn't pay the overhead. The beer business wouldn't pay the overhead. If we lose the machines, I'll be locked up in three or four months.

FINN: Dave is one of more than sixteen hundred neighborhood slot parlors in West Virginia. State lawmakers legalized the video machines six years ago. And since then, these mini casinos have sprung up in strip malls and gas stations, even in a former ice cream parlor.

But there are signs that West Virginians are having second thoughts about the machines.

Unidentified Woman: First of all, I want to thank you all for coming out tonight. We really appreciate your…

FINN: This fall, the state's largest county is holding a series of public hearings about slot machines in bars. Angela Brown(ph) said that gambling will not create the kind of jobs that will keep her daughter in West Virginia.

Ms. ANGELA BROWN (Resident, West Virginia): So my daughter will move out of state. She'll go somewhere else because we're not doing anything positive here.

FINN: Almost half of West Virginians say they're regular churchgoers, higher than the national average. And religious groups on the left and right have fought the expansion of gambling. But they have had little success.

At a recent meeting at the West Virginia Council of Churches, conservative activist John Kerry(ph) strategized with his more liberal counterparts about how to eliminate mini casinos. Kerry says that lawmakers approved the slot machines, but the state's voters are turning against them.

Mr. JOHN KERRY (Activist): We did not decide as a state that we wanted to have the gambling casinos. I don't believe that. I believe that decision hasn't really been made yet.

FINN: Since the neighborhood slot parlors were legalized, calls to the state's gambling hotline have more than doubled. About two-thirds of the callers said their problem stemmed from the neighborhood establishments.

For Reverend Dennis Sparks, head of the Council of Churches, this isn't a theological issue. It's practical.

Reverend DENNIS SPARKS (Executive Director, Council of Churches): We all have people come to us and say I blown my paycheck so I got to feed my kids. Can you give me food? Or I got to pay my utility bills or my electricity is going to be cut off. Or I can't pay house payment, they're going to take my house away because I gambled and I couldn't stop gambling.

FINN: What's happening in West Virginia is part of a larger national trend. Keith White, director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, says it's easier than ever to play games of chance on the Internet, at race tracks and in local bars. Older types of gambling like bingo and lotteries are giving way to more addictive games like video slots.

Mr. KEITH WHITE (Director, National Council on Problem Gambling): Traditional forms of gambling are rapidly morphing into increasingly fast-paced, high-stakes and very accessible forms of gambling.

FINN: And perhaps, the biggest addict of all is the government of West Virginia, which receives 12 percent of its revenues from gambling - more than any other state except South Dakota and Nevada.

Money from the neighborhood gambling parlors pays for college scholarships, a minor league ballpark and water and sewer projects. State lawmakers are warning that if they reduce or eliminate gambling in bars, they'd have to cut these programs, too.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Finn in Charleston, West Virginia.

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