Virginia lawmakers took steps Tuesday to legalize casinos in five cities around the state.
House and Senate committees both advanced legislation that would allow voters in Bristol, Danville, Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth to hold local referendums to approve casinos.
Virginia is currently one of only a handful of states that forbid any type of casinos, but it has been inching toward legalizing them in recent years. Advocates say large-scale resorts with casinos in economically disadvantaged areas will create new jobs and boost tax revenues.
“Just give us an opportunity to determine our own destiny,” said Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, the chief sponsor of the legislation and the General Assembly's most outspoken supporter of casino legalization.
Conservative groups warned lawmakers that new casinos would enrich wealthy developers and casino operators while hurting the state's poor.
“These are the people the gaming industry targets,” said Todd Gathje, a lobbyist for the Family Foundation.
Developers, local governments, casino operators and lawmakers have been quietly negotiating on legislation to determine how many casinos the state should allow and who will get to run them. Key players include Jim McGlothlin, a wealthy coal industrialist who wants to build a Hard Rock casino and resort in Bristol, and the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which is eyeing a potential casinos in Richmond and Norfolk.
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But the legislation still has a long way to go before being finalized.
A Senate subcommittee on gaming rejected part of the compromise Tuesday that would have vastly expanded the number of slot-like machines the operator of the state's only horse track, Colonial Downs, could operate at satellite locations. That would include up to 1,800 of the machines in Northern Virginia, where they do not currently operate.
Lawmakers have shown little appetite so far for allowing casinos in the densely populated northern part of the state. Gambling behemoth MGM Resorts International in recent years opened a $1.4 billion resort and casino in Maryland just across the Potomac River from Virginia and next to Washington.
Two years ago, the Virginia General Assembly approved the slot-like machines, known as historic horse-racing machines, as part of a bid to help fund live horse-racing. A legislative study issued last year predicted a 45 percent hit in historic horse-racing revenues if casinos were legalized.
Myles Louria, a lobbyist for Colonial Downs, said the Senate panel's decision to reject the expansion of historic horse racing machines threatens the viability of the horse racing industry and is “inconsistent” with the action lawmakers took two years ago.
Lucas indicated she was willing to move forward even without the expansion Colonial Downs is seeking.
“I need to get my bill passed no matter what," she said.
A House gaming subcommittee also rejected part of the legislation that would have only allowed Colonial Downs or the Pamunkey Tribe to compete for the Richmond casino.
Gambling issues are a key topic in Virginia's legislature this year. Lawmakers are also weighing whether to legalize online sports betting and whether to regulate or ban betting machines that have proliferated in convenience stores in recent years.