Will Virginia Become Las Vegas? [General Assembly Recap PART 4]Mar 15, 2019
Besides issues involving life and abortion, this year became the year of gambling. There were at least 15 bills to expand gambling in Virginia, including full-scale Vegas-style casinos in as many as five cities, the legalization of sports betting and online gambling, expansion of the Lottery, and the commercialization of charitable gaming. We had our work cut out for us to educate and provide testimony on the many reasons why these predatory industries are a bad bet for Virginia fiscally, economically, and socially.
With over 50 well-paid lobbyists roaming the Capitol halls on behalf of the gambling interests that flooded the Commonwealth this year, in the end SB 1126 (D-Lucas) was the last bill left standing, and the House and Senate versions of the bill could not be further apart. Then late on a Saturday evening, while no one else was at the Capitol and the session was wrapping up its last full day, the bill's conference committee members met to “resolve” the significant differences in the House and Senate versions.
Unfortunately, and to our great surprise, what they created in this back-room deal was a bill that would seem to satisfy the deep pockets of the numerous gambling interests and billionaire benefactors. The legislature essentially threw the entire gambling 'wishlist' – full-scale casinos in five or more cities, college and professional sports betting, online gambling, etc. – into one giant gambling bill. Only one casino in each city would be allowed, and only investors who can put up a minimum of $200 million in capital investments would qualify. (Hence, why we called this "crony capitalism", with the government granting monopolies to favored parties.)
The bill does require a commission to first “study” the matter and provide a report in only about 7 months from now, but with something of this magnitude, a half-year study is nowhere near long enough to show they're serious. The bill also stipulates that casinos have to be approved by the city residents in a voter referendum, but gives no say to the countless people in the adjacent localities who will also be impacted, while also ignoring the fact that big-money interests will likely pump millions into a local referendum to effectively buy the support they'll need. The bill also requires the legislature to pass the bill again next year in order for it to become law, so at least there is still time to influence legislators on these policies.
This gambling 'omnibus' bill reflects a combination of ‘kicking the can down the road’ to give the General Assembly another year to figure out exactly how much and what kinds of new gambling they want to foist upon Virginians, and also a strong legislative 'tipping of the hand' suggesting that they’re primed to expand gambling in one way or another no matter what this “study” uncovers or recommends.
A big part of the challenge this year was that the General Assembly was so preoccupied with other important matters like the ERA, tax reform, abortion and infanticide, and the improper behavior of our top three elected officials, that there was virtually no time - and no real opportunity provided - to engage in any serious policy discussions on the issues of casinos or sports betting. Much more robust discussions need to take place before the General Assembly thinks about making such a major shift in public policy.
Also noteworthy, HJ 658 (R-Pogge), a Constitutional Amendment we drafted that would have required statewide approval of any casino gambling the legislature were to pass, never made it out of committee. The bill was modeled after Florida, whose citizens voted last November by a 71% margin to put this requirement into their state constitution.
The debate over major new gambling schemes in Virginia is far from over. There is still much work and education to be done on these issues over the next year. Stay tuned as things continue to develop.