Good Intentions, Lessons Learned
I was recently talking to a friend of mine. We were discussing life in general and the conversation came around to my writing. It has been awhile since I put something out there. Of course there are the usual excuses as to why but I really have been in kind of a funk as of late, having started and stopped quite a few pieces, not being able to put them together. Other writers run into this from time to time I’m sure. My friend suggested I write about something personal to get back into it.
Taking his suggestion to heart I thought about where would I start? Do I go with what is happening now or do I dip into the well and pull up a story from back in the day. After much thought and with what is going on in the world today I decided to write about my first lesson in public service. How I learned that trying to do the right thing sometimes has consequences that might not seem worth the hassle in the end to some people. How government can try to fix a problem in the guise of the trying to protect the public but unintentionally end up hurting them in the end.
In 2003 I was a fresh faced, neophyte councilman learning the ropes of city government. Two years before that, the State of West Virginia decided to change its fortunes when it came to revenue by enacting legislation related to Limited Video Lottery (LVLs).
Now I will preface this story by saying I have no qualms with gambling. Even though I do not patronize the local LVL establishments or the two local racetrack/casinos near me on a regular basis, I do not disparage those who do. Gambling has always been a part of my community and my own family. Whether it is the local church bingo night or the bar where you can play numbers, gambling has been a part of the blue collar, steel mill town lifestyle for decades.
There have been instances over the years where gambling has led to arrests and confiscations. Even a local Sheriff got caught up in it in a very bad way once. In the back room of many bars and fraternal organizations were what was called “grey machines” which were basically slot machines. Under the letter of the law, these machines could not pay out winnings to the player. That law was rarely followed though. Every so often you would see the dog and pony show of the authorities raiding some of these establishments. Machines were wheeled out, the proprietors arrested. Everything was splashed all over the local news outlets. Most of the time though they would be back up and running shortly afterwards.
Bob Wise, who was the Governor of West Virginia from 2001-2005 pushed legislation to control the grey machines by registering, regulating and taxing them. The bill was met with opposition from the start. It was eventually sold to the legislature as a way to shore up the state’s budget, invest in a college scholarship fund for the sons and daughters of West Virginia and of course, help senior citizens. How could the legislators turn their back on kids and seniors? Plus Governor Wise wanted to protect children and families from being exposed to the unregulated grey machines that proliferated the state (more on this later).
By the time I entered the political arena on July 1 of 2003, the bill had passed and was beginning to be implemented throughout the state. That summer, LVL establishments began to pop up seemingly on every block, old buildings, houses and just about anywhere you could move 5 machines in and slap an “open” sign on the door. It was ridiculous.
I even recall one establishment being named Wiseguys, a sort of tongue and cheek homage to the governor. This was after the genie was out of the bottle. Instead of “protecting” children from being exposed to those dastardly grey machines that were locked away in back rooms of cigar shops or bars that did not even allow children, the LVL legislation fueled the explosion of businesses with signs like Slots of Fun and other names that made it fairly simple to understand that you could gamble inside. Garish paint jobs on the buildings, big, bright signage. While the proprietors were following the letter of the law at the time, the “spirit” of the law was being ignored. The Governor was incensed about the fact that his idea of protecting kids from exposure to illegal gambling became a joke of sorts. You could ask a kid and even some of their parents before 2001 if they knew what a grey machine was. Many would have no clue. After 2001, if you asked them what was in the big red, white and blue building on the corner or the big purple building up the road they could tell you exactly what was there.
So Wise asked the legislature to amend the bill to outlaw “gambling related” signage for LVLs. Once passed, the businesses were forced to rename their establishments. In order to stay in compliance, the owners had to put forth some ingenuity. So they came up with the idea of calling themselves cafés. Specifically, cafés “and more” as a wink-wink to customers, letting them know that the good times were indeed rolling inside.
All the while, these cafés and more continued to rake in the dollars. More buildings were renovated and turned into LVLs. My town in particular was hit hard with the escalation of LVL establishments from the onset. The town was changing before my eyes, and not in a good way.
The mill was struggling, there was a lot of uncertainty in the city at the time. Residents were upset and started to ask that we, as their elected representatives, do something about it. I took it upon myself to lead the charge. It was not going to be an easy task, I knew that going in. Some of my town’s most prominent citizens were involved in the LVL trade, even a couple of my fellow councilmen.
My first lesson on how entrenched it was becoming was when I found out that one of three businesses that sold ice cream in the city was about to close and reopen as an LVL soon after. It just so happens that a local church owned the property that the ice cream stood on. They leased it to the company. It was a nice arrangement for the church. A family friendly business, right outside the church’s doorstep. A win-win if there ever was one.
When I was alerted to the change coming I made the decision to personally make a visit to the church and let the minister know about it. He was incredulous. He acted as if he had no idea that this was going to occur. I provided him the information I received relating to the transaction. I even knew the name of the LVL that was soon to come. He went on about how he would take it up with the church council, put a stop to it.
I walked out of that meeting feeling like I struck a blow for the residents who asked me to do something. It was a good feeling. However, that feeling was eventually replaced with disappointment. To this day, as of this writing, I never heard back from that minister or anyone from the church council. The LVL opened without incident. As did many others.
I decided to use my power as one of the six councilmen of the ninth largest city in the State of West Virginia to do more. I wrote resolutions asking the state legislature to open and define the intent of the bill. I wrote ordinances related to distances between LVL establishments to try and curb their proliferation throughout the town. At every step I met resistance. Even from my own brethren.
I was making so much noise that a local state delegate spoke out about what I was doing. After we passed a resolution that was headed to the state legislature asking them to open the bill up for further discussion, he gave an interview to the local television station decrying the request. He used a tried and true political maneuver that day. While he didn’t lie, he didn’t tell the whole truth. He said if they opened up that bill it would endanger college scholarships and senior citizens because of the fragility of the bill’s passage. He didn’t mention the development projects that shared that money too or the creation of one of the state’s largest bureaucracies, the Lottery Commission. That money was not just for the kids and old folks; it went to other entities that do not necessarily tug at one’s heartstrings. Of course they got my side of the story too but in the end it made no difference. The legislature ignored that resolution along with a couple more related to the subject.
The state had it locked down, you see. We could not zone them out. We could not tax them. We were at the mercy of the state. The city did receive revenue from the proceeds, I will not deny that; however, the amounts received were a pittance compared to the millions, yes millions, being spent within the city’s borders and heading down to Charleston. All the while we were dealing with the stigma of becoming a “Little Las Vegas” where café and mores lined the streets along with a couple strip clubs downtown. It was not a good look.
The only hole the legislature left in the bill allowed us to require distances between LVL establishments. Again, this was met with fierce resistance. We would write an ordinance and they would find loopholes. If the distance was main entrance to main entrance, they would lock the front door, dig out the back of the building and create a main rear entrance. Or they would cut the front of a building in half to get it further from an LVL across the street.
We eventually settled on the distance being measured as the nearest corner of one LVL to the next nearest corner of the neighboring LVL. Believe it or not, I heard that one proprietor was going to build a round building to get around the corner to corner verbiage. It never happened though.
The city at one time had two Dairy Queens and Brewsters. The first to go was the Brewsters. The church saw to that. The two Dairy Queens lasted a little longer before they, too, were taken over by LVLs. The man who built those Dairy Queens with his blood, sweat and tears had died and left the business to his son to run. Circumstances arose that put both shops in jeopardy when it came to finances. The franchise was lost soon after. A local law firm, flush with cash after scoring on the Fen-Phen/Redux diet drug lawsuit swooped in and bought both former Dairy Queens and converted them into LVLs. They were the ones who chopped the front half off on the one located on Main Street to comply with the distance ordinance in place, being that a bar was across the street that already had an LVL license.
We became the town without an ice cream parlor. The Dairy Queen I grew up going to, the one I took my daughters to after soccer games or for a special treat, was gone. About five years ago, due to the last mayor I served under, the city retained a new Dairy Queen in a new location. He worked hard to make that happen. It is nice to have back but it is not the same to me. My daughters did not get to spend the same quality time there as teenagers as I once did. It was more than just a place to get ice cream back then. It was one of those places that made small town living what it should be, and they missed it.
When it became evident that the state was not going to change things when it came to curtailing the LVLs I decided to take it to the proprietors, calling for them to make meaningful donations to the various entities that were struggling, in need of funding in the city, to no avail. Again, millions of dollars were flowing in and out of the LVLs. They could have donated the change they swept up off the floor each night to make a difference back then. It did not matter to me who they helped but with what the residents had to put up with when it came to the LVLs popping up all over town, it was the least they could do to show they cared.
Eventually they did. Not because of what I said, of course; they formed their own group and pooled their dollars together and started handing out one check a month. A few hundred there, a thousand here. Not “meaningful” by any means when you knew that they were making thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions but hey, at least they were doing something.
As of this writing that group no longer exists. Times have changed and those LVLs have blended in, become part of the landscape. We all know what a café and more is now. Eventually the resistance died off, too. I used to say it was because they couldn’t possibly fit any more in the city. The distance ordinance actually helped the LVL owners in the end by keeping competition out, much to my chagrin.
As the years have gone by things have changed. The gold rush of LVLs subsided. Some came and went. The revenue leveled out for the state, so much that the board which oversees the Promise Scholarship made it more difficult for kids to qualify for it. Why, you ask? That is why the legislature passed the bill in the first place, to help those kids out, right? Well, too many kids qualified for it and instead of cutting funding from the Lottery Commission or some other entity within the state to continue their “Promise” to the state’s sons and daughters, they made it harder on them to realize their dreams of an affordable college education (if there really is such a thing).
I am sure that Governor Wise could have never envisioned that his idea of regulating grey machines would have taken the twists and turns that it has over the last nineteen years. His intentions, protecting the children and families of West Virginia from illegal gambling, fell short, but he did create a revenue stream for the state that they just cannot live without now, which is a positive I suppose. These days we have casinos in different parts of the state with table gaming, sports betting, dog and horse racing. It seems almost quaint now that he took down the grey machines with any moralistic idealism when the state has now become more dependent on revenue generated from gambling than ever.
Just like my intentions of creating distances between LVLs to curb their proliferation ended up helping them establish themselves into the fabric of our community as just another business no different than any other to the people that live here. When I started down that road I never thought the result would be the opposite of my objective. A hard lesson learned for sure.
As the old saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. After serving my community for over a decade in politics I learned exactly what that meant. I am guessing there are some folks in Washington D.C. who feel the same way right about now on both sides of the aisle when it comes to decisions they have made. In November, it will be up to my fellow Americans to pull the lever. History will be the judge as to who made the right choice in both instances.
E Pluribus Unum