Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Virginia’s Skill Game Debate Could Stretch Into the Summer

Games that allow people to bet money and win cash have popped up around the state, including in this Richmond corner store. Manufacturers say they’re games of skill, not chance. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — After finishing work on almost everything else taken up during the 2024 session, the Virginia General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin have decided to keep talking about skill games.

The governor and several lawmakers said Monday that they’ll continue seeking a way to get the slot machine lookalikes taxed and regulated in response to a major lobbying push by business owners and the companies that make and distribute the games.

“What we decided was that we would pick that up at another day,” Youngkin said Monday as he signed a bipartisan budget deal that didn’t address the legality of skill games. “That’s a commitment that we’ve made.”

There were few answers Monday on what the new skill game legislation might look like and when lawmakers could potentially return to Richmond to act on it.

“There’s more work to do,” said Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, a key sponsor of the skill game legalization bill. “We’ll make sure that we do put in that work so that by the time we come back we can be in a good place to have agreement on the bill.”

The decision to keep working on skill games even though the clock has run out on the regular 2024 session is the latest sign of pro-skill game lawmakers and industry lobbyists doing whatever it takes to allow the machines to start making money again for the businesses that host them.

Convenience store owners have traveled to the Capitol in droves this year to convey that skill games have become a critical source of revenue that helped them get through the COVID-19 pandemic and keep workers employed.

Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, said he hopes the machines can still become legal on July 1, the date skill game supporters have been aiming for despite uncertainty over whether the state could have the manpower and technological systems in place to properly regulate them under that timeline.

The lobbying effort is being led largely by Pace-O-Matic, a Georgia-based skill game company that’s become a major campaign donor to both parties in Virginia and has made contributions to both Youngkin and Democratic General Assembly leaders. The company has also hired Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, to perform legal work on its behalf and has hosted other senators at a rodeo event it sponsors every summer in Wyoming.

Lawmakers were back at the Capitol this week for a one-day special session to finish work on the budget. Because that special session didn’t completely adjourn Monday, lawmakers left open the possibility of returning later to take up skill games and any other legislation that might impact state tax revenues.

Summertime special sessions are rare, and they’re often called to address a crisis or emergency. It was unclear Monday how many rank and file members of the General Assembly are on board with the prospect of coming back to the Capitol to resolve a dispute over how to legalize another form of gambling. Some weren’t too hot on the idea.

“I would rather us just be done with the issue,” said Del. Mark Earley Jr., R-Chesterfield, a skill game opponent who said he’s not convinced the public is clamoring for lawmakers to approve more gambling.

Virginians Against Neighborhood Slot Machines, an anti-skill game advocacy group funded by casinos that see the machines as undermining their more heavily regulated facilities, said it’s a waste of time and money to extend the special session to accommodate skill games.

“The amount of oxygen being wasted on convenience store slot legislation is truly embarrassing for our commonwealth,” the group said in a written statement.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who voted for the skill game bill, said the talk of lawmakers returning to take up new legislation is more of a possibility than a sure thing.

“If they come up with a proposal we’ll have to see what it is,” Surovell said. “To pass a bill like that in an efficient fashion in less than five days, it takes 80% votes. And I’m not sure whether or not people who don’t like skill games are willing to expedite the process.”

The skill game talks expected to occur over the next few weeks will mostly center on how to square Youngkin’s proposal, which skill game supporters see as far too strict, with a General Assembly bill critics say is overly friendly to the industry.

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.

The geographic limits were particularly upsetting to skill game supporters because they would effectively ban the machines in nearly all of the state’s population centers due to the casinos and Rosie’s facilities, which feature slot machine lookalikes based on horse racing, that have already opened across the state.

Local control has also been a sticking point. Before casinos and horse racing facilities could open their doors, the state required them to first win approval from voters in the communities they were interested in. The skill game bill that passed the General Assembly didn’t require voter referendums and gave city and county governments no ability to ban the machines at the local level. Youngkin had suggested giving local governments the ability to opt out of skill games without requiring the type of opt-in referendums necessary for casinos and horse racing.

The state Senate rejected all of Youngkin’s suggestions and sent the original bill back to the governor’s desk, where it’s still awaiting action.

The governor is facing a Friday deadline to decide what to do, but he’s widely expected to veto the bill and start fresh with a new attempt to legalize the machines.

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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