Gaming Bills On The Move In Virginia

January 29, 2024
Virginia lawmakers are preparing to revisit the two landmark laws from 2020 that brought legal sports betting and casino gaming to the state, as they weigh alternative host cities for casinos and reconsider a prohibition on wagers on in-state college teams.

Virginia lawmakers are preparing to revisit the two landmark laws from 2020 that brought legal sports betting and casino gaming to the state, as they weigh alternative host cities for casinos and reconsider a prohibition on wagers on in-state college teams.

The Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology approved a number of gaming bills last week, sending various measures to rejig Virginia's casino landscape and expand permissible sports wagers to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Among the list of bills was Senate Bill 541 to remove Richmond as an eligible city for a casino after two failed local referendums in 2021 and 2023.

Senator Lamont Bagby, a Democrat whose Senate district includes Richmond, said his bill was not introduced at the request of the city's mayor or council, which have both supported efforts to bring a casino to Virginia's capital city.

“I represent the people of Richmond. And they’ve said twice that they don’t want it. They want to move on,” Bagby said.

Also in response to the second failed Richmond referendum, the General Laws committee voted to advance a further bill, Senate Bill 345, to require any eligible host city that holds a local casino referendum that fails to then wait three years before seeking a new ballot initiative.

“What this prevents from happening is what happened in Richmond (in 2023 and 2021) where the voters said no,” said Republican Senator Bryce Reeves, the bill's author. “It just prevents folks from trying to buy their votes to get something passed when clearly the citizens of the jurisdiction don’t want it.”

Reeves said his proposal also falls in line with what the state requires with historic horseracing referendums.

Alternative Casino Locations

A separate bill to shift a potential fifth Virginia casino from Richmond some 24 miles south to Petersburg easily passed the committee, moving the economically struggling city a step closer to joining the list of cities eligible to host a casino under a state law initially approved in 2020.

Senate Bill 628, co-sponsored by Senator Louise Lucas and Senator Lashrecse Aird, both Democrats, was advanced in a 13-2 vote on Wednesday (January 24). During the 2023 session, a similar bill failed by one vote in the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.

Aird, who represents Petersburg, said the city has faced significant challenges and hardships over the past five decades. She said for a city with an annual 13 percent unemployment rate, a casino would generate an estimated $204m in net gaming revenues, with about $17.2m in tax revenues for the city. 

Baltimore-based Cordish Companies, which operates Live! branded casinos in Maryland and Pennsylvania, has proposed a $1.4bn casino-resort in Petersburg.

A further piece of legislation, Senate Bill 429, would have reduced from five to four the number of Virginia cities eligible to host a casino by removing Richmond from the list. However, the measure was stricken from consideration by the Senate committee at the request of its author, Democratic Senator Schuyler T. VanValkenburg.

“We’ve had a lot of gaming in the Commonwealth,” VanValkenburg said.  

“I voted on five [casinos] and with Richmond definitely out of the picture, I’m comfortable with this,” VanValkenburg said, adding that he would not vote to approve a sixth casino in the state.

The original 2020 law legalized casino gaming, which is regulated by the Virginia Lottery, in up to five locations pending approval in a local referendum. The four cities to have approved casinos so far are Portsmouth, Bristol, Norfolk and Danville.

As well as potential shifting the site of a fifth casino from Richmond to Petersburg, senators also took the first steps last week to consider a sixth casino in the populous Washington, D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia.

During its meeting on Wednesday, the General Laws committee voted 10-4 to pass Senate Bill 675, which would allow the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in northern Virginia to determine whether to hold a casino referendum.

Senator David Marsden, a Democrat and author of SB 675, said a casino with a conference center, hotel and concert venue could reinvigorate Fairfax County and retain some of the $150m Virginians currently lose annually across the Potomac River at MGM National Harbor resort in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

“This is a referendum bill,” Marsden said. “We take this to the board in Fairfax County and they make a decision to take it to a referendum.”

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission estimates a casino in Fairfax County could be worth $155m in state and local tax revenue, he said. 

The idea of a northern Virginia casino was first considered in last year’s session, before Marsden withdrew his bill from consideration.

Betting On In-State Colleges

Meanwhile, the Virginia Senate committee separately approved Senate Bill 124, authored by VanValkenburg, to allow Virginians to bet on the University of Virginia and in-state college games.

The state's 2020 law authorizing online sports betting allows college betting in general, but not for games involving Virginia schools.

VanValkenburg’s bill would retain a ban on proposition betting for all college sports.

When Virginia first legalized sports wagering, the Senate passed a bill that would have allowed wagering on Virginia colleges, before later accepting the ban as proposed in the House’s version of the legislation.

VanValkenburg reminded his colleagues last week that a lot of Virginians still gamble on the state's collegiate teams through sportsbook operators in Tennessee, Washington, D.C. or offshore. He said it would be better for the state to bring wagering on in-state colleges into the regulated market.

“I’ve always been a no on this,” said Reeves, the Republican senator. “I have very strong feelings about this … as a former collegiate athlete.”

SB 124 was passed through committee twice last week with Reeves abstaining on each vote. It is unclear if Reeves would oppose the measure should it be considered on the Senate floor this session.

Each of the gaming bills advanced by the General Laws committee was referred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, which meets each Tuesday and Wednesday. As of Friday (January 26), the committee had yet to post its latest meeting agendas. 

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