RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- On Tuesday, lawmakers voted for the first time this year on a bill that could legalize casinos in some parts of the Commonwealth.
In 2019, a similar bill fell short when the General Assembly voted to have a non-partisan commission study the issue. Since then, lawmakers have incorporated lessons from that study on how the industry should be regulated.
Sen. Louise Lucas (D-11) said legalizing casino gambling could give economically distressed areas a much-needed boost.
“This is our Amazon,” Lucas said. “It’s a means of having those five localities define their own destiny.”
The bill sets specific criteria for localities that would be eligible for a casino project. It considers unemployment rates, poverty rates and population decline among other metrics.
“This piece of legislation will allow us to begin reversing those trends,” said Bristol, Virginia City Manager Randall Eads.
Sen. Lucas said voter referendums would still be required before casino projects could move forward in the five localities included in last year’s bill.
“There’s no desire for this to expand beyond the five because we don’t want to create a proliferation where we’d be doomed to fail,” Lucas said on Tuesday. “We want to see how these five localities fare first.”
The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLARC) study said a competitive bidding process should be used to choose a developer in each locality that meets the criteria. It specifically recommends the establishment of a committee to evaluate proposals, including “individuals with business, finance, and operations experience and who represent both the statewide and local perspectives.”
Sen. Lucas said her bill gives localities the authority to decide on a developer, though the decision will still need to be vetted and reviewed by the state before a referendum can be held.
The study also noted Virginia could give “special consideration” to federally recognized Indian tribes during the selection process. Lucas’s bill includes this language.
The bill also establishes a “Virginia Indigenous People’s Trust Fund,” to be distributed equally on a quarterly basis to each of the state’s six federally recognized tribes.
Pamunkey Indians Chief Robert Gray said his tribe is planning casino projects in Richmond and Norfolk.
“We have access to federal programs but having our own economic independence will bring us greater sovereignty and the ability to help our tribal members with housing, healthcare, and education,” Gray said.
Some have raised concerns about the impact casinos could have on other gaming industries in the state.
John Hannum is the executive director for the Virginia Equine Alliance, an organization that represents the horse racing industry across the Commonwealth. He said the JLARC study predicted legalizing casinos could cut available revenue for the industry by 45 percent.
On Tuesday, a Senate General Laws and Technology Sub-Committee decided to remove a part of Lucas’s bill meant to lessen the impact on tracks like Colonial Downs near Richmond.
“They’ve hired thousands of people and I think that investment should be protected,” Hannum said. “I think its a very bad signal for a company to come in, make that investment and then have the rules change so significantly that their business model isn’t viable.”
Hannum said his group isn’t against legalizing casinos but he’s hoping lawmakers ultimately decide to include a provision that would allow the number of historic horse racing machines to increase by 600 every time a casino is approved in a referendum. Right now, the machines are capped at 3 thousand.
Some have also raised concerns about a potential increase in gambling addiction following legalization. Sen. Lucas’s bill also calls for a treatment and prevention program to address this.