RICHMOND, Feb. 21 -- The Virginia Senate stepped up its efforts Wednesday to enact the largest expansion of gambling in the state in a decade.
The Senate voted 20 to 17 to allow Colonial Downs to install up to 11,000 video terminals so customers can bet on recorded horse races. The bill, which could generate as much as $300 million annually for transportation projects, could face its final hurdle as early as Thursday when the House is scheduled to consider the legislation.
The proposal to greatly expand gambling at Colonial Downs will probably face strong opposition. The measure has been bottled up in a House committee for weeks. To get around the committee, the Senate voted Tuesday to send the bill directly to the House.
The games, which are called historical racing, would be programmed with tapes of more than 10,000 horse races held over the past three decades at tracks across the country. A customer could then put any amount from a nickel to $5 in the terminal, select a race, handicap it and pick a horse. The customer would watch either the whole race or the last few seconds on the screen. If the selected horse wins, the customer would receive a payout.
Colonial Downs wants to install the games at its racetrack near Richmond and nine off-track betting locations. The effort, which is designed to generate money for transportation, comes as states across the region are turning to gambling to raise revenue. In 2004, Pennsylvania joined Delaware and West Virginia in allowing slot machines at racetracks. Last week, the West Virginia House of Delegates went a step farther, voting to allow table games at its racetracks.
Conservative lawmakers in Virginia say they worry the Colonial Downs bill could be the first step to legalized casinos in the state.
Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation, said, "We believe there are enough folks to see the dangers of expanded gambling and are not going to fall for this guise."
The bill won bipartisan support in the Senate on Tuesday, and lobbyists for Colonial Downs said they expect a close vote in the House.
If approved, state and local governments would get 53 percent of the revenue from the games. The state's horse racing industry, which says it needs revenue to increase purses at Colonial Downs, would get 4 percent. Colonial Downs would get the rest. "There's an opportunity for some public good to come out of this," said Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), one of the bill's proponents.
Ian M. Stewart, president of Colonial Downs, said the racetrack just wants to expand off-track betting, which is legal in the state. "We're just trying to help them find money that they need for transportation."
But House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he was "adamantly" opposed: "These things are just like slot machines, and [Colonial Downs] is going to reap a gazillion dollars."