Virginia Sports Betting And Casino Bills Eye Finish Line
Sweeping bills to permit legal sports betting and casino gaming for the first time in Virginia history are closer than ever after lawmakers advanced measures to do both with lopsided support during committee votes this week. This opens the door for the first five brick-and-mortar casinos and sportsbooks in the commonwealth, along with online options for both.
Legislators eliminated more than a dozen competing measures, laying the foundation for critical legislative structures such as tax rates and purveyor access. As written, industry stakeholders may find the taxes too high and the operators too few for their liking, but the General Assembly’s moves still have pushed an unprecedented gaming expansion closer to fruition.
Key details — and votes — remain before either can pass into law, but moves throughout this week have excited gambling supporters.
Lawmakers last year approved the sweeping measure to permit online and retail sports betting, poker and casino gaming, but the measure required a commissioned evaluation of gaming in Virginia as well as second vote by the General Assembly in 2020.
Along with separate bills that would pass the 2019 measure, legislators floated several additional measures to approve casino gaming, sports betting and internet lottery sales, among other gaming offerings. Those largely fell by the wayside after the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee consolidated six bills into one Wednesday evening.
- Roll With Me: The committee voted 13-0, with one absence and one abstention, to roll the half-dozen proposals into SB 36. Sponsored by Sen. L. Louise Lucas, a longtime casino advocate, the bill is a reenactment of the 2019 proposal. If passed by the whole General Assembly this year, it would legalize casino gambling in Lucas’ hometown of Portsmouth, as well as Richmond, Bristol, Danville and Norfolk, if further approved by a majority of voters in those localities in a future ballot measure.
- Competitors Fall: The consolidated bill combines several other bills independent of the reincarnation bill. SB 36 includes a clause that would explicitly allow the casinos to open sportsbooks and digital gaming options, unlike several of the bills it absorbed. More than half the original batch of two dozen or so gambling bills have been killed or incorporated into other measures nearing the ceremonial halfway point of the 2020 session.
- Key Quote: For Lucas, this is a critical step forward after two decades working on casino legislation in the General Assembly. Saying the passage of these bills would be like “our Amazon” for her community, she profusely thanked the General Laws committee for its support.
”I don’t have words to describe to you now, because after waiting so long to get to this point, I feel like I’m levitating.”
Wednesday’s Senate votes echo similar moves earlier this week in the House of Delegates.
- Earlier Votes: The House Tuesday consolidated five separate versions of the 2019 bills into HB 4, sponsored by Republican Del. Barry Knight. Democrats spearheaded last year’s bill but garnered bipartisan support in the General Assembly, which was controlled by the GOP at the time. Democrats took over both chambers after last fall’s elections, but the move to coalesce around Knight underscores bipartisan support in the 2020 version.
- Sports Betting Bill: The House and Senate previously advanced their versions of a more narrow bill to permit online sports betting under the purview of the lottery. The bills have tight bet types restrictions, league compensation mandates for in-play betting and one of the nation’s highest gross gaming revenue tax rates, but favorable recommendations out of committee give them momentum as they near what seems inevitable votes on their respective chamber floors.
- Background: The casino reincarnation bills had taken a back burner to several new proposals such as the sports betting measures introduced this year. After strong support in the House and now Senate committees, it now appears they are well on their way to passing in 2020, especially after both chambers overwhelmingly supported the same bill less than 12 months ago.
- Merger: It looks more likely than ever that lawmakers will use the 2020 sports betting bill as the vehicle to regulate that industry in the commonwealth, if it isn’t merged into the larger casino bill outright.
The lopsided support by committee members in the House of Delegates and Senate give increased momentum to Virginia casinos and regulated sports betting as lawmakers face a crucial deadline next week to advance the proposals.
- Further votes: The key casino and sports betting bills are under discussion in the House and Senate appropriations committees. If support there comes even close to the lopsided backing in the previous committees, the legislation will go to floor votes in both chambers, where it will almost assuredly receive widespread, bipartisan support. All bills must “crossover” to the other chamber by Feb. 11.
- Collaborations: The 2020 session ends March 7, leaving about a month for lawmakers to consider the other chamber’s gambling bills (along with hundreds of other measures). However, these bills haven’t advanced in a vacuum: basically identical legislation was introduced in both chambers before the session began, so the “new” bills are essentially the same ones worked on last month. Differences could emerge in further debates, but there are good odds lawmakers who backed these bills in January will do so again in February.
- Other Legislation: On top of everything else, lawmakers have already pushed a series of additional, unrelated bills that would regulate unlicensed video gambling machines, allow online lottery sales and permit video lottery terminals. After whittling away competing proposals in both chambers, the remaining bills have all advanced out of their respective committees of origin and received favorable reviews from members of the House and Senate appropriations committees.
- Regulators: All these new gaming ventures will be subject to regulatory review. The Virginia Lottery, the state’s largest current gaming entity, will oversee the regulations and rollout of the new casinos if approved, a process that will take months. Not only will state and Lottery officials regulate and inspect the new gaming offerings, but they will have to create the rules for doing so.
- Bottom Line: The recent committee votes have not just underscored support, but shaped the core details of what would be the commonwealth’s unprecedented gambling expansion. The exact structure, along with a timeline for first legal sports bet or hand of blackjack, remains undetermined, but the critical first legislative steps are advancing quickly and with little opposition.
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