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New Form of Horse Betting Is Pushed to Fund Projects
But with the need for transportation projects estimated at $17 billion in Northern Virginia alone, Colonial Downs officials hope legislators can be enticed into supporting the racing games.
"We can get a couple hundred million more for transportation, and we can free up more money for other things," said Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), the sponsor of the bill, which will be heard by a House committee. "The lottery creates new games all the time, and nobody questions that."
Under the proposal, the state would receive about half of the money generated annually to use for transportation, about $323 million a year, according to an analysis conducted for Colonial Downs.
Virginia legislators have taken a strong stance against slots. The House of Delegates passed a resolution three years ago asking that Maryland keep slots away from the Potomac River, fearing that problems associated with gambling could encroach into the commonwealth.
Since they cannot have slots, Colonial Downs officials said, instant gaming is needed to bolster Virginia's horse racing industry, which faces stiff competition and a dwindling fan base.
In Hamilton's bill, between 4 and 6 percent of the revenue generated from the games, up to $30 million, would go toward increasing the purses at Colonial Downs.
"It would be a fantastic source for purse money to expand and increase the number of racing days in Virginia," said Jerry Canaan of the Virginia Harness Horse Association.
But gambling opponents say the risks associated with expanded gambling, such as crime and addictions, outweigh the benefits. "If you had a pharmacy that wasn't making it, you wouldn't let them sell crack cocaine to stay in business," said Robertson, who cited studies that show legalized gambling costs a state between $2 and $3 for every $1 it brings in.
Such sentiment runs strong in parts of historically conservative Virginia.
"In my district and part of the state, we don't look too kindly on gambling measures," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), from Southwest Virginia.
To make its case, Colonial Downs has hired a half-dozen lobbyists this year. Last week, the company rented a swanky new restaurant in downtown Richmond for a reception to show off the games to state and federal officials.
"I have no problem with it at all," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "We're losing a lot of revenue to adjoining states."
Barbara Knickelbein, a gambling opponent who has been battling slots in Maryland, countered that Virginia lawmakers should think twice before they are tempted by the prospect of free money.
"The state will only get $300 million for transportation if Virginians lose $300 million," said Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of No Casino Maryland. "The state is going to gain, but somebody is going to be losing it."