RICHMOND — Casinos took a baby step forward in Virginia on Monday when a Senate committee passed a bill that could set five cities on track to seek a casino license in two years.
It was a rare event — Virginia has resisted casino gambling for decades.
“It’s been 25 years coming!” said a jubilant Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), a longtime supporter of the issue.
But there’s still a long way to go.
The Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology rolled several casino-related bills into Lucas’s original measure and referred them to the Finance Committee for a look at fiscal impact. It was unclear what the bill’s prospects might be in Finance, which can sometimes be a graveyard for controversial measures.
The bill the committee approved Monday would allow the cities of Bristol, Portsmouth, Danville, Norfolk and Richmond to hold referendums on whether to pursue casino projects.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has called on the General Assembly simply to establish a study on casino gambling this year. Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said the administration would watch the current bill with interest but noted that it goes beyond what Northam said he was comfortable with.
“I’m not saying the governor will be for it or against it — but it’s not a study,” Layne said after the vote. “It’s a big decision. The General Assembly ought to understand we have significant issues to deal with.”
Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville have all sought permission to pursue gaming as a way to stimulate their economies, which have been among the most ailing in Virginia.
Separately, the Pamunkey Indian tribe has said that it is pursuing a federal process to secure a casino project and that it favors possible sites in Richmond and Norfolk. That route can take years, though, and a spokesman for the tribe said the Pamunkey want the General Assembly to put them on the same footing as other potential casino projects so they don’t get left behind.
Monday’s bill would allow those five localities to start studying the issue and holding referendums, requiring voter approval before anything could proceed. It also instructs the Virginia Lottery board to review gaming laws in other states and says the board could not issue a gaming license before July 1, 2020.
Similar bills are in the House of Delegates, but those are parked in a holding committee and have not yet been assigned anywhere for debate.