Democrats Winning In Virginia Could Benefit Gambling

Democrats Winning In Virginia Could Benefit Gambling

Democrats won both chambers of Virginia's General Assembly Tuesday, furthering the prospects of a major gambling bill that will likely pass into law early in 2020.

The first version of the sweeping gambling bill, which would permit sports betting, online gaming and the commonwealth’s first commercial casinos, was championed predominantly by Democrats. An unusual requirement in the law required passage by not just lawmakers in 2019 but also in 2020, setting up the possibility that the Nov. 5 election could bring into Richmond a wave of lawmakers that would effectively veto the legislation.

Democrats largely championed the bill earlier this year and passed it despite Republican control of both houses. With Democrats now in control, it seems almost guaranteed that the new General Assembly will pass the bill again in 2020.

The next General Assembly will see Democrats hold narrow majorities in both the Senate and the House, even as a handful of races remain uncalled. Republicans held a 20-19 lead in the Senate and a 51-48 advantage in the House before Tuesday.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who was not on the ballot Tuesday, backed the original bill and remains a regulated gaming advocate.

Tuesday also knocked off one of Virginia’s most outspoken gambling opponents from the speakership. Incumbent House Speaker Kirk Cox, who vehemently opposed the bill in the legislature, now loses his influence to not just thwart this bill but possible further expansions in coming years.

Virginia Gambling Background

The likely passage of the Virginia gaming bill is all the more impressive given the commonwealth’s centuries of gaming aversion.

Virginia remains one of a dwindling group of jurisdictions without any commercial casinos, operational horse tracks or other brick-and-mortar gaming facility. With the exception of the state lottery, Virginia has largely opposed most forms of gaming since the American Revolution, largely due to conservative cultural, political and religious traditions dating back centuries.

That opposition has begun to thaw in recent years as the Old Dominion has seen radial population increases and demographic shifts. Spurred by a younger, more diverse population increasingly centered around Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads, the commonwealth has increasingly shifted toward less conservative politicians, a dynamic further underscored by Tuesday’s elections.

Developments in neighboring jurisdictions also played a role. MGM National Harbor, located less than a mile from the Virginia-Maryland border, compelled Virginia’s elected officials to reconsider their reservations. Sports betting authorization in West Virginia as well as Washington D.C. also sparked interest in sports betting in the commonwealth as well.

Even before the Maryland casino and the neighboring sportsbooks, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law one of the nation’s first daily fantasy sports legalization measures, arguably the most noteworthy gaming development since the Virginia Lottery sold its first ticket nearly 30 years earlier. Northam, his successor, supported one of the nation’s historic horse racing bills, a move to help re-start the commonwealth’s shuttered pari-mutuel racing industry.

Those moves, along with the federal government’s authorization for a Native American tribe to offer casino gambling, opened the door for the landmark 2019 bill, which could have far-reaching impacts across Virginia.

What’s Next?

Assuming lawmakers pass the bill again in 2020, literally every corner of the commonwealth could have access to unprecedented gaming options.

Officials in Bristol, located along the Tennessee border, have publicly clamored for a casino. Additional gaming facilities may come to the greater Hampton Roads region, and online betting may soon arrive for eligible players anywhere within state lines.

The bill was purposefully vague about key gaming issues, most notably purveyor access and tax rates, and required a study to be released to lawmakers later this year. That means the details of Virginia gambling remain undetermined, and a timeline for the first legal online bet or commercial casino groundbreaking is unknown.

Still, a major breakthrough in gaming had good odds before Tuesday. Wins by Democrats in both chambers of the legislature only further the potential for regulated gambling.

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