MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Deadbeat parents, listen up: Win big at the casino tables in West Virginia or Colorado, and your kids might win, too.
The two states are moving ahead with plans to garnish the winnings of casino gamblers who owe child support. West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources is working on a plan that could be in place within 90 days, while Colorado is rolling out its system July 1.
The proposals are another tool in a diverse arsenal that authorities already have to collect money from delinquent parents.
"We impose the same burden on banks; they must search their records. We do the same thing with brokerage houses and other businesses. Welcome to the club," said state Rep. Joel Judd, a Denver Democrat who fought for five years to overcome industry opposition and win approval from legislators.
"I'm not aware of anyplace else in society where we have large cash transactions like we do at the casinos," Judd said. "It just seemed to me that if a guy owes back child support and wins big, the kids ought to get the money."
Colorado's plan faced significant opposition from casino operators who argue it is difficult to track table winnings, and West Virginia is hearing the same. Critics say the programs impose an undue and unenforceable burden.
"A person could actually come to the casino, purchase $2,000 worth of chips, cash out $1,000 worth of chips, and it would look like he won $1,000. But the truth is, he lost $1,000," said West Virginia Racing Association President John Cavacini. "There's no system in place that would compute winning and losing."
Currently, the Internal Revenue Service requires casinos to report large payouts — over $600 on most forms of wagering, over $1,200 on slot play — but Cavacini said it is the obligation of the gambler to report income from table games.
The IRS also requires casinos to report cash prizes over $5,000 in tournaments and non-cash prizes worth more than $600.
While many states check big winners of traditional lottery games against lists of people who owe child support, the National Conference of State Legislatures believes Colorado and West Virginia would be first to go after casino winnings. Mississippi and New Mexico have statutes allowing casino payouts to be intercepted for child support debts, but neither is doing so.
Budget problems stalled development of an electronic interface in Mississippi, where child support officials also couldn't get an agreement with the casinos, said Stephanie Walton, a program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The New Mexico Department of Human Services, meanwhile, can track winnings and match them to a list of delinquent payers, but it has no way to collect the money. Spokeswoman Betina Gonzales McCracken said the state simply gathers information on payouts over $1,200 as evidence for court hearings.
Nor is there any way to predict how many people such systems would snare: Casinos are tourist destinations, and each state checks names and Social Security numbers against only its own database.
In the Colorado and West Virginia systems, casinos would garnish the winnings of delinquent gamblers on the spot — a prospect Judd said operators found unappealing.
"I told them, there is no other line of business better equipped to handle an angry customer than yours," he said.
But there are differences in the states' plans: While Colorado would go after all forms of winnings, West Virginia would initially focus only on table games.
West Virginia may target slots later, said Garrett Jacobs, deputy commissioner of the state child support bureau. But it must first determine how to apply the system to about 1,600 video poker bars.
Allowing employees at those clubs to access a secure system could compromise personal information, Jacobs said. The state also believes it would be unfair to force child-support checks on the four casinos without requiring the same of the smaller parlors that compete for their customers.
In Colorado, legislators passed a law to implement the new program. But in West Virginia, child-support officials are trying to bypass lawmakers. Because the West Virginia Lottery lacks jurisdiction to enforce the child-support plan, however, its success depends on the casinos' willingness to participate.
Spokeswomen for Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort in Chester, W.Va., said they know too little about the plan to comment. But an executive with Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center in Nitro, W.Va., which will soon install table games, said collecting child support would be a hassle.
"I can certainly understand the problem, and I'm certainly sympathetic to the problem. But I'm also running a business," said Daniel Adkins, vice president of the casino's parent company, Michigan-based Hartman & Tyner Inc. "It seems like quite a burden to put on the operator."
Adkins said he would rather collaborate on a system both parties could live with, such as a periodic list of offenders' names that could be distributed to the casinos.
"We're partners in the state, no question about it," he said, "and I'm sure we could come up with a reasonable solution."