Virginia Casino Bills Race Against Saturday Deadline, Lawmakers Fight Over Next Step
The Virginia casino debate in the Richmond capital needs to be settled by Saturday, which is the scheduled adjournment for the General Assembly until its spring session.
The odds don't seem to be in favor of proponents who are urging state lawmakers to send Governor Ralph Northam (D) a gaming bill before the recess.
Senate Bill 1126 – authored by Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) – has gained approval in both the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate. The legislation would allow casinos to be built in the towns of Bristol, Danville, and Portsmouth, and also permit the Pamunkey Indian Tribe to build Native American gaming resorts in Richmond and Norfolk.
Lucas' bill, however, only gained support in the GOP-controlled state Senate after a mandate was added requiring a comprehensive study on the impact of legalizing commercial casinos. The review is to be carried out before asking voters if they want to authorize the new forms of gambling.
Lawmakers are deliberating how the gambling review should be carried out. There's an array of opinions.
A change to the state's gambling laws requires amending the Virginia Constitution – something that can only be done through a voter referendum. State Sen. Bill Carrico (R-District 40) doesn't understand why a study on gambling should be carried out when it's possible voters will reject the casinos.
If it's rejected by the people, then there's no reason to spend the money on the study,” Carrico explained. “I never wanted to do a statewide referendum on these issues because I don't want Northern Virginia telling Bristol what they can have.”
But Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (D-District 3) says Virginians need to be informed on what they're voting for. The longtime state lawmaker led the charge to make sure a gaming study was commissioned and presented to voters before they head to the polls.
Lucas' original bill called for a study – but required a November 1 completion date, which is just four days before the 2019 election.
“It just struck me as being rather unusual that we were taking an informative study that was going to have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on informing the voters … what the potential implications of gaming would be,” Norment explained.
Delegate Chris Peace (R-District 97) introduced legislation this week that would bypass voters for the time being and simply order a study on what impact gambling would have on the state. “You don't want to pick the winners and losers before they have a chance to study the framework,” Peace detailed.
Peace's legislation would initiate a review of the commonwealth's existing gaming industry – which is primarily its lottery and forthcoming Colonial Downs parimutuel racetrack equipped with historical racing machines – as well as proposals to legalize commercial and tribal casinos, sports betting, and online gaming.
With lawmakers at odds, the safe bet might be that the casino issue won't be settled until the General Assembly reconvenes in April.
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