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Virginia Senate panel approves first batch of casino bills


Virginia Senate panel approves first batch of casino bills

Jan 24, 2024 | 5:54 pm ET
By Graham Moomaw
Virginia Senate panel approves first batch of casino bills
Slot machines in a casino. (Aaron Black / Getty Images)

As Virginia lawmakers continue to discuss the addition of new casinos in the state, Richmond appears to be out, Petersburg seems to be in and Northern Virginia looks like a question mark.

A state Senate panel took action on an initial batch of gambling bills Wednesday, offering some early indicators of what policymakers might do on the topic this session.

A bill that sailed through the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee 15-0 would permanently remove Richmond from the list of cities eligible to host casinos after voters rejected casino referendums in 2021 and 2023.

“I’m voted in by the people of the city of Richmond. And they’ve said twice that they don’t want it,” Sen. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, told colleagues as he presented the bill.

Efforts to shift a prospective central Virginia casino to Petersburg also appear to be getting a favorable reception as the committee easily approved legislation adding the smaller, economically struggling city south of Richmond to the list of approved cities. Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, said she feels her city meets all the criteria lawmakers had in mind when they passed a 2020 law allowing casinos in areas in need of revitalization like Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth and Norfolk.

“The city of Petersburg more than exhibits that same need,” Aird said this week.

Northern Virginia wasn’t a major part of the state’s initial casino conversation, but a bill to start the process of potentially bringing one, along with a conference center and event venue, to Tysons Corner in Fairfax County also cleared its first hurdle in the Senate.

Why some think going all in on a Fairfax County casino would be a bust 

Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, who’s leading the charge for a casino in his region, told lawmakers Northern Virginia isn’t the booming area it once was due to the pandemic-induced shift to remote work. That’s led to empty office space, he said, and weaker incentives for businesses to establish themselves in close proximity to Washington, D.C.

“Fairfax County is no longer quite the behemoth that it was,” Marsden said as he argued a casino could reinvigorate the region and keep more of Virginians’ gambling dollars from going across the border to the MGM National Harbor resort in Maryland.

The idea of a Northern Virginia casino was floated in last year’s session but was withdrawn before it could be put to a vote.

Some senators expressed concerns that the potential casino in Northern Virginia doesn’t have the same groundswell of local support that earlier projects did. A representative from Fairfax County told the Senate’s gambling subcommittee that the county didn’t have a position on the bill but wants to preserve its options.

“In all the other casinos that we’ve considered in the past, we’ve had the local government come forward and ask for the authority to put on a referendum,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who voted against the bill. “And we’ve had some demonstrated support from the community.”

The Northern Virginia casino bill cleared the General Laws committee 10-5-1, a sign it may face a tougher path than the legislation to make Petersburg the state’s fifth casino site.

“I’m not going to vote to go to six,” said Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico. “Five is what we voted on back in 2020. Five is an important number. We don’t want to create a precedent where we are just coming here and letting any old locality get another one.”

Sen. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, said she’s supporting the Northern Virginia bill because it leaves the final decision in the hands of Fairfax residents if the county chooses to move forward with a casino referendum.

“If the people of the area do not want this casino, then they will vote in the negative,” Carroll Foy said.

With more cruise ships expected to be coming in and out of Norfolk, the Senate committee also gave initial approval to a bill allowing cruise ship casinos to operate off Virginia’s coast. Lawmakers say the bill only applies to cruise ships traveling from port to port and would not allow floating casinos that stay in one spot.

“This is for ticketed passengers as cruise ships come into the port and back out,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, the chairman of the General Laws subcommitee that deals with gambling. “Likewise in traversing up to Baltimore up the Chesapeake, when they’re within Virginia they can still have that entertainment available to passengers.”

Sports betting

The committee also approved a bill to allow sports betting on college games involving Virginia schools. When the General Assembly legalized sports betting in 2020, lawmakers included a carveout prohibiting wagers involving college sports teams from Virginia but allowed bets on college games in other states. That limitation was meant to shield student athletes from the gambling industry, but some lawmakers feel it’s complicated efforts to bring sports betting into the light and have it taxed and regulated.

“You see a lot of people who are still gambling on Virginia sports,” said VanValkenburg, who’s sponsoring the bill to lift the college sports restriction. “They’re doing it in D.C. They’re doing it in Tennessee. They’re doing it illegally. They’re doing it through a friend. All of our surrounding states can gamble on Virginia universities.”

Under the sports betting bill, prop bets on college sports would still be prohibited, meaning bettors could only wager on the outcome of a game rather than the performance of individual student athletes.

Skill games

The Senate’s gambling committees haven’t provided much clarity on how the chamber will handle skill games, the slots-like machines that spread throughout Virginia gas stations and restaurants. Those machines are now banned, but the industry is pushing to have them taxed and regulated.

On Wednesday, the General Laws committee briefly discussed an electronic gaming bill filed by McPike that would legalize similar machines seen as competition for skill games but add tougher regulations, such as a higher tax rate, player cards that could be used to exclude minors and people suffering from gambling addiction and stricter rules on how much money the machines can keep versus paying back out to players.

The industry-preferred bill was routed around the Senate’s gambling committees entirely. At Wednesday’s meeting, a key backer of the industry’s bill, Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, raised objections to McPike’s bill on the grounds that it hadn’t been put to a vote in the committee’s gambling-specific subcommittee.

After a brief, private huddle involving Rouse and McPike, the committee agreed to delay action on McPike’s bill for the week.