Virginia Sports Betting, Casinos Are Closer After Key Votes

Virginia Sports Betting, Casinos Are Closer After Key Votes
© USA Today

There are no sure bets in politics or gambling, but politicians in Virginia are giving legal casinos and sports betting excellent odds.

The House of Delegates and Senate this week overwhelmingly advanced their versions of four separate bills that, if all passed, would permit the commonwealth’s first casinos, online casino gaming, digital sports betting and internet-based lottery sales. Both chambers will still need to pass identical versions of the bill, but with such widespread support — and only minor differences in the legislation — it would take an unprecedented bad beat to thwart the legislation.

With Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam on board with the Democrat-controlled General Assembly’s legislation package, it could be just a matter of weeks until one of the most gambling-averse states passes some of the nation’s most expansive gaming bills.

Here’s what you need to know about the pending Virginia gambling laws:

Casinos

Perhaps most notably, Virginia is on the cusp of its first legal casinos. The potential for up to five casinos could bring several thousand new jobs and several hundred million in annual tax revenue.

The General Assembly passed a casino bill in 2019, but that bill required further study and a subsequent approval from lawmakers in 2020. After the initial chamber votes, it seems a formality this bill will pass again.

  • Details: Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond would all have casinos. An idea to allow a casino in the densely populated, more affluent northern portion of the state gained little traction in the General Assembly.
  • Voter Referendum: All five casinos are subject to approval from a majority of voters living in the respective jurisdictions, which will most likely be in November. Though the referendum could delay (or end) casinos, it seems all five are on safe ground. Civic leaders have championed casinos as a chance for economic revival, and some have even preemptively struck partnerships with casino operators.
  • Key Point: It’s hard to understate how big a deal this is for Virginia. Brick-and-mortar casinos weren’t seriously considered for centuries. Now Virginia is poised to have five spread across the southern half of the state, from its eastern maritime border in Hampton Roads to its westernmost point along the Tennessee state line.

Sports Betting

The casino bill passed in 2019 also opened the door for legal sports online sports betting, but new legislation introduced this year will likely be the vehicle for legal wagering.

  • Skins: Lawmakers are still working to finalize the number of online licenses or “skins,” which at this point seems like it will be somewhere between six and 10. This is lower than most other competitive market places. There are 14 Pennsylvania online sportsbooks allowed under state law, while there can be more than 30 New Jersey online sportsbooks.
  • Taxes: The tax rate is also unsettled. The Senate bill taxes 15% of gross gaming revenues and the House bill takes 20%. Both are higher than industry median average of around 10%, but are still low enough to attract most top operators, especially if the Senate rate prevails.
  • Worth Noting: The House and Senate versions open the door for a future retail sportsbook at a professional sports stadium. This could be a nod to Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who has reportedly asked lawmakers to allow a sportsbook in a future Virginia stadium for his team, even as he lobbies lawmakers in Maryland to do the same.

Lottery

Legislation has also advanced to greatly expand the scope of the Virginia Lottery.

  • Online Lottery Sales: Virginia could join just a handful of states with lottery sales over the internet. The lottery generates more than $600 million annually for state education funds in Virginia.
  • VGTs: Lawmakers bypassed legislation to allow the lottery to offer individual video gaming terminals and instead are pushing a proposal that would regulate these type of “skill” games, which are common at truck stops.
  • Key Fact: Far and away Virginia’s most lucrative existing gaming entity, the Virginia Lottery will also oversee regulations for the new casinos and sportsbooks.

Next Steps

A few hurdles remain before any of these bills can pass into law.

  • Negotiations: Both chambers have to approve identical versions of the bills. A conference committee of members from both chambers could work to merge the two bills, as was the case with earlier legislation. There’s arguably a better chance the conference committee will agree to take one chamber’s version as is, and then send that complete, unedited bill to the opposite floor. This process can be difficult politically, but the relatively small differences between the competing measures and the broad consensus in both House and Senate diminish the chance for a roadblock.
  • Deadline: The bills are close, but the gaming measures, like all other bills in Richmond, are subject to the legislature’s March 7 deadline to pass all bills on to the governor. Expect a frenetic next few weeks as lawmakers work to finalize the gaming bills (and several hundred other pieces of legislation).
  • Bottom Line: Further logistical and practical steps remain before Virginians can place a sports bet from their phone or a casino operator can break ground on their property, but the huge margins of support in both chambers of the legislature mean casinos, sportsbooks and digital lottery sales are all but assured to arrive in Virginia.

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