Legislature moves Heaven and Earth to pass casino-gambling

Unfortunately, gambling in Virginia just got a whole lot more expansive, but only after the House and Senate practically moved heaven and earth – and exploited nearly every procedural loophole – to pull it off. “Unconventional” hardly begins to describe what transpired over the past few weeks. It started to feel more like we were “north of the Beltway” than in Richmond.

It all started when “historical horse racing” on casino-style slot-machines was quietly slid into the outgoing Governor’s introduced budget. It was a bold move, given the legislature’s well-abided unwritten rule of not making substantive policy changes through the budget, instead of pieces of legislation. The RTD was first to point out that this major gambling expansion was in the budget, but that there was no corresponding bill in either the House or Senate through which to vet the issue on its merits and with the standard public hearing process. To Speaker Cox’s credit, nearly three weeks into the start of the Session and after the normal deadline for introducing bills had passed, he responded by allowing Delegate Webert (R-Warren) to introduce HB 1609 on the House floor, which required unanimous consent. But the introduced bill was essentially a “place holder” bill with no policy content, with the intention of it being significantly amended later. The final version, if signed by the Governor, will dump over 3,000 electronic slot-machine devices at locations all across the state.

The process continued from there to be anything but standard. Instead of being assigned to the House General Laws committee, where historical racing had always previously been sent (2010, 2011, and 2015) and each time defeated, the bill went straight to the Appropriations Committee, where it lacked the benefit of being heard on its merits to weigh whether it was a good policy idea for Virginia. Once assigned, the bill took off like a race horse through the House as if having been injected with a shot of pure adrenalin.

During the Appropriations subcommittee hearing, the actual policy was revealed and approved 8-0 with only The Family Foundation speaking against the bill language that had not been seen prior to the start of the meeting. Two days later, the full Appropriations Committee voted 21-1 to send the bill to the House floor, but allowed for no public testimony. We quickly realized there were numerous powerful and wealthy interests involved and that this iceberg we saw on the surface was buttressed by a significantly larger underbelly. So we doubled down to take them on, managing with very short notice to peel off 24 “no” votes on the House floor.  

At “crossover,” we got a second bite at the apple in the Senate, but so did the deep bench of highly-paid corporate lobbyists representing the other side. The Senate, meanwhile, had already approved Historical Racing four times (2008, 2010, 2011 & 2013). At least policy testimony was heard in the General Laws and Technology Committee. The Family Foundation took our best shots, but the bill passed 13-1 and was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.  The Family Foundation prepared to testify there regarding some anomalies, but the Senate Finance leadership did not take public testimony before approving the bill 12-4. 

Amazingly, the bill allocates just 1.5% to the localities and leaves the remaining 98.5% to be allocated by the five-member Virginia Racing Commission appointed by the Governor.  In denying the interested groups the opportunity to speak, the Finance committee suggested that the various interested parties still needed to work out some differences that would necessitate the bill being put into “conference” for the House and Senate conferees to work out.  So they put a technical amendment on the bill supposedly for that purpose. They did this apparently without the foreknowledge of the patron of the bill, or most of the interested parties. Whatever they were up to, it certainly seemed strange.

Interestingly, on the morning of the Senate Finance Committee vote, the RTD reported about this initiative, quoting Senator Louise Lucas, who has long-carried casino gambling bills nearly every year. She spoke maybe too much truth about the historical racing machines at issue. "That's kind of the camel's nose under the tent," she said, adding that she saw little difference between machines that allow historical horse race betting and slots.  "They can say whatever they want, I like what they did," she said, adding that she hopes the legislation opens the door to more types of gambling being approved "not in the too distant future."

The following day when the bill went to the Senate floor, they just so happened to be able to work everything out overnight, and the Senate leadership immediately had the Senate reject the committee amendment, bypassing any need for the House to get another vote on the bill and for a House/Senate conference on the bill. Then, bypassing the usual three-day process for bills that make it to the floor, the Senate sped up the process and passed the bill 31-9.  Now it’s on to the Governor for signature and the Racing Commission for regulations to be produced and for Virginians to be hit with the impact of even more gambling to come.

With few exceptions, everyone piled on the gambling train, swooning over the shiny slot-machine scheme that promises to garner some $349 million from unsuspecting future gambling addicts that we’re told will revitalize the equine industry and usher in the renewal of live horse racing in Virginia, the industry that already failed miserably, despite the state’s earlier attempts to save it. Unfortunately, we anticipate in a few years from now having to tell the General Assembly “We told you so” – again.

With the amount of determination we saw in making this happen, there will no doubt be more attempts at expansion next year in a variety of forms. And we will be there again to meet them head on, continuing the stand against attempts to expand gambling for the sake of Virginia communities and families.