Virginia lawmakers advance plan to legalize casinos

Posted at 12:09 PM, Feb 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-04 16:50:31-05

RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia lawmakers are taking steps to legalize casinos in five cities around the state.

Republicans and Democrats have reached a deal on the legislation, but it still needs to be passed in the General Assembly.

A Senate sub-committee advanced legislation Tuesday that would allow Bristol, Danville, Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth to hold local referendums to approve casinos.

Virginia is currently one of only a handful of states that forbid any type of casinos, but it has been inching toward legalizing them in recent years.

Portsmouth city leaders spent Wednesday morning in Richmond to advocate for the legislation. "The message was this is about economic development," said Mayor John Rowe. "It's about creating jobs and good paying, skilled jobs."

Advocates say large-scale resorts with casinos in economically disadvantaged areas will create new jobs and boost tax revenues.

Conservative groups warned lawmakers that new casinos would enrich wealthy developers and casino operators while hurting the state's poor.

Previously, there had been questions over whether Norfolk and Portsmouth could both support casinos. The bill's sponsor Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) said all five of the cities are sticking together. Rowe believes two casinos would work. "Oh absolutely. We did our own economic study and the study came back showing the Hampton Roads market can support two casinos," he said.

The Colonial Downs Group is worried the casinos will harm their investments at their racetrack in New Kent County and at Rosie's Gaming Parlors. A state study by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission said the horse racing industry could face a 45% hit if casinos are legalized.

The legislation contains a provision allowing for Colonial Downs to operate potentially thousands of additional historical horse racing machines. The Senate General Laws and Technology Sub-Committee on Gaming scrapped that part of the legislation during Tuesday's hearing, but it could be revisited as the bill makes it way through the General Assembly.

Colonial Downs Group released a statement about the legislation, saying they're "ready to compete with any entity for the opportunity to help Virginia expand its gaming platform. We believe any legislation should give consideration for partners with proven track records and a material investment in Virginia. In our experience, other states have always made some provision for incumbents when expanding gaming legislation."

The legislation is expected to be discussed during a House sub-commitee hearing on Tuesday afternoon.