State lawmakers say odds are stacked but better than ever for legalization of Bristol, VA casino

Bristol, VA city leaders will have to convince the Virginia General Assembly to legalize casino-style gambling in the state before a project to repurpose the abandoned Bristol Mall into a casino can move forward. 

This comes after the city council unanimously approved a resolution of support at a meeting Tuesday night, a stamp of approval that is merely symbolic. 

The fate of the project is in the hands of state lawmakers, who have historically struck down repeated attempts to legalize casinos.

Virginia is widely considered one of the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to pro-gambling legislation but state lawmakers told News Channel 11 today that, while the odds are still stacked, they're better than ever. 

The most recent failure came in January of 2017, when a casino proposal out of Portsmouth, Virginia died in committee. The bill, introduced by State Sen. L. Louise Lucas of District 18, was voted down 8-7 along party lines, with all republicans in opposition. The partisan make up of that committee hasn't changed since, members said Wednesday. 

But republicans lost significant ground in the state House of Representatives in the last election. They currently have a one vote advantage, compared to the two-thirds majority they held prior. That means, if a bill clears committee, it'll be more likely than ever to pass, according to state senators on both sides of the aisle. 

Also in developer's favor are several incremental, pro-gambling victories leading up to this session,  State Sen. Jeremy McPike of the 29th district, who voted in favor of the most recent casino legalization attempt, said Wednesday. He cited the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in favor of sports betting as one example. At the state level, he pointed to the legalization of poker, now considered a game of skill, not chance. He also referenced the passing of historic horse race betting and the expansion of charitable gaming, like bingo.

Yet State Sen. John Chapman Peterson, who represents Fairfax, VA, said Wednesday that for-profit casinos are a vastly different territory. He said legalizing this would require the formation of a new state regulatory body, adding time and resources to a proposal already burdened by opposition. 

Jasen Bige, Vice President of The United Company, the business spearheading the casino project, acknowledged the challenges expected at the state level. He said in an interview Wednesday that they're still in the process of drafting legislation and that they have yet to seek out sponsors for the bill at the state house. 

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