Friday, June 14, 2024

As Special Session Approaches, are Skill Games Dead or Alive?

Backers of the bill to legalize slots-like skill games in Virginia wore yellow shirts to show their support in a legislative committee hearing. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — At a meeting of Virginia’s advisory council on gambling addiction late last month, Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, made a bold prediction.

The battle over whether the state should legalize the slots-like gambling machines known as skill games reached a standstill in April due to policy disagreements between the General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

There have been signals the skill game legalization effort could potentially be revived by being folded into the unfinished state budget lawmakers are supposed to finish next week.

But Krizek said he doesn’t see that happening and thinks the skill game legalization effort is probably dead for the year.

“I would be very surprised if the skill game [bill] somehow gets resurrected in the budget process,” Krizek, a skill game critic who chairs a House of Delegates subcommittee that handles gambling issues, told the problem gambling panel at its April 24 meeting.

With the special session fast approaching, it’s looking increasingly unlikely the House, state Senate and governor’s office are going to reach a deal on skill games. But it’s not being entirely ruled out yet, which means it’s unclear if skill games will or won’t be on the General Assembly’s agenda when it reconvenes Monday for a special session.

On Wednesday evening, Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, said he and other House and Senate members negotiating the budget haven’t come to a consensus path forward on skill games.

“But we still have left open the possibility that some things can be resolved by tomorrow,” he said.

Youngkin and leaders of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly are trying to work out a compromise between two dueling budget plans they crafted earlier this year. Neither of the proposals serving as the basis for those negotiations include language lifting Virginia’s newly enacted ban on the thousands of gambling machines installed in convenience stores, truck stops and restaurants throughout the state.

If there are any plans in the works to add skill game legalization language to the budget, nobody’s going public with details.

Youngkin’s office would not comment for this story.

House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, Senate Finance and Appropriations Chairwoman Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and several other lawmakers didn’t respond to requests for comment.

It’s unclear if that silence is a sign policymakers are close to giving up on the idea of a skill game deal for this year or trying to keep last-minute talks under wraps. Either way, they’re running out of time to figure it out.

Under the special session timeline state leaders have laid out, the newly negotiated budget would be unveiled Monday at the latest, which means there are only a few days left to make final decisions about whether the skill game standoff will or won’t be resolved through the budget.

In response to pleas from business owners who say their livelihood depends on the extra money from the now-deactivated gambling machines, the General Assembly passed a bill that would tax and regulate the machines instead of leaving them illegal. Opponents of the bill contend Virginia has already allowed too much gambling and shouldn’t sanction slot machine lookalikes that are trickier to regulate because they’re spread throughout hundreds of smaller storefronts instead of being confined to a few big casinos and horse facing facilities.

Youngkin proposed a higher tax rate on the machines than what the General Assembly envisioned, tougher regulations aimed at blocking minors and gambling addicts from accessing the machines and strict geographic limitations that would ban skill games in much of the state by barring them within 35 miles of any state-licensed casino or gambling facility affiliated with horse racing.

If no deal is reached, skill games will remain illegal in Virginia under a ban former Gov. Ralph Northam first approved in 2020. There are still multiple ways the machines could become legal this year, but the lack of forward movement has convinced many Capitol observers the outlook for skill games is turning grim.

“That one had a long and interesting life,” Krizek said of the skill game bill at last month’s meeting of Virginia’s Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Advisory Committee. “It’s now on life support.”

If skill game legalization isn’t included in the budget deal, the General Assembly would have to broaden the focus of the special session in order to take it up as standalone legislation. That step could complicate efforts to have a swift special session in which lawmakers pass a consensus budget, announce they’ve prevented a government shutdown and go home.

The pro-skill game coalition that’s been lobbying for the bill has gone mostly silent since April 17, when the state Senate soundly rejected Youngkin’s much tougher rewrite of the skill game legalization bill and sent him back the original, more industry-friendly version the legislature preferred. A spokeswoman for the Virginia Merchants and Amusement Coalition, one of the main groups leading the charge for skill game legalization, didn’t respond to requests for comment on where things stand.

Youngkin could still theoretically allow the original bill to become law, but that too seems unlikely because the governor has said he sees numerous problems with the looser regulatory structure lawmakers insisted on keeping. The governor has not yet acted on bills sent back to him last month, but the pending skill game bill could be among the next batch of vetoes he’s expected to announce late next week after the special session is over.

Proponents of the skill game legalization bill have said it includes safeguards meant to mitigate gambling addiction and prevent anyone under 21 from playing the games, but critics have argued the measures in the bill would be ineffective because they fall short of similar rules applied to other types of newly legalized gambling like casinos and sports betting.

At last month’s meeting of the problem gambling advisory council, Carolyn Hawley, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who’s one of the state’s foremost experts on gambling addiction, said the skill game bill the General Assembly passed has set back gambling mitigation efforts by lowering the bar of what’s expected when new types of gambling are legalized.

“When we look at all the other industries with everything that’s being accomplished in the state as far as responsible gaming and consumer protection, it eradicated all of that,” Hawley said.

In a recent episode of his podcast, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, who has pushed to keep skill games legal both in the General Assembly and by helping the industry fight the ban in court, indicated he too is unsure of what the final outcome will be now that skill games are “in the weeds with the budget.”

“It’s all up in the air,” Stanley said.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Samantha Willis for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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