[This post has been updated.]
The casino bill that was just beginning to move through the Virginia statehouse came to a sudden stop Wednesday, when the senator who introduced it requested that it be carried over for the year.
From Rachel Weiner’s story out of Richmond:
An attempt to allow casino gambling in the state of Virginia has died in the state legislature.
Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), who introduced the bill legalizing casinos, asked to put her own measure off for the year while she gathers support in the more-conservative House of Delegates. Lucas said she’s found a House member willing to carry the bill next year.
Senate Bill 19, which would allow a casino in the Hampton Roads area of the casino-free Commonwealth of Virginia, was approved by the Senate’s General Laws and Technology Committee on Monday. It was just the first step forward for the long-shot bill — which you can read in its entirety here — but it was a notable one, considering that similar gambling legislation was killed by the same committee in 2013.
From the Virginian-Pilot’s story on Monday’s vote:
The same committee killed the effort last year, but it progressed on a 7-5 vote this time around, an outcome helped by Democrats’ reorganization of the committee when they seized power in the Senate last week.
Lucas, a Democrat who represents Portsmouth, and several city officials cheered and hugged after the vote, but the celebration may be short-lived. The measure still has to make it through the Senate Finance Committee, gain approval on the Senate floor and survive the Republican-controlled House.
The idea has typically drawn support from business owners and opposition from religious and family groups worried about the societal ills, such as crime and gambling addiction, that they say follow casinos.
Lucas wants to use casino taxes to offset new regional road tolls. As I reported in a front-page piece last year, Virginia is currently one of just 11 states where there are no commercial or Indian casinos — and even the most ardent proponents of casino gambling in the Old Dominion think it doesn’t stand a chance.
“Forty-nine states will have it before we get it,” the Virginia Senate’s Democratic leader Richard L. Saslaw told me at the time. Remembering that Utah exists, the Fairfax County lawmaker — who has supported casino legislation in the past — said: “Maybe 48.”
Saslaw and all 16 other members of the Senate Finance Committee voted to continue the bill Wednesday.
The American Gaming Association, which lobbies on behalf of the commercial casino industry, has been keeping its eye on SB 19 but wasn’t planning on getting involved in Virginia anytime soon.
In a recent e-mail, Sara Rayme, the AGA’s senior vice president of public affairs said the association “will not engage in state legislative attempts to permit gaming (running around state capitols encouraging legislators to do one thing or the other); or more specifically, lobbying to legalize commercial gaming facilities in Virginia. The AGA will, however, unabashedly promote and provide facts about the value of our industry in all markets that are contemplating and/or have casino-style gaming.”
Conventional wisdom in the industry is that Virginia isn’t in play.
To wit: On the day his company won the license to build a $925 million casino complex overlooking the Potomac River in Maryland, MGM Resorts International Chairman and chief executive Jim Murren declared that MGM National Harbor would probably become the most profitable commercial gambling resort in the country, outside of Las Vegas.
Among the reasons: There’s a gold mine just across the Potomac, with roughly half of MGM National Harbor’s gambling revenue — at least $350 million in fiscal 2019 alone — expected to come from Virginia. (MGM’s Maryland casino is expected to open in mid-2016.)
In December, Murren told reporters in Maryland that “Virginia won’t get gaming in my lifetime.” In an interview with Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston, Murren extended the commonwealth’s casino-free timeline, saying: “We think that Virginia and many other surrounding states will never have gaming.”
As those great American philosophers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, once sang: Never is a long time.