For the dozens of people hoping to hear Virginia is ready to open its doors to casinos and sports betting, there were few signs of encouragement Friday.
At the first General Assembly hearing on a big batch of gambling bills, several senators signaled they’re leaning toward accepting Gov. Ralph Northam’s call for a comprehensive study instead of plunging into a world that Virginia policymakers haven’t dealt with before.
“No offense to any of y’all, but I’m tired of hearing about gambling,” said Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, who chairs the Senate General Laws Committee that met Friday afternoon to begin sorting out the gambling issues.
Ruff said he wants his committee to dispense with the legislation sooner rather than later. The bills could come to a vote Monday. But Ruff hinted that the puzzle of competing proposals may be unsolvable in a short session.
“I would say there are an awful lot of tentacles out there that run between this proposal and that proposal and the third and the fourth,” Ruff said in an interview.
Other senators seemed to agree.
“There’s too many opportunities to screw up on something this big,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.
The complexity of the General Assembly’s options was on full display among the various factions that packed the hearing room Friday.
There was the group from Bristol that wants a casino in Southwest Virginia. There were the Portsmouth and Danville delegations who want the same opportunity for their cities.
The chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which wants to build a riverfront casino in Norfolk, made an appearance to say Virginia shouldn’t overlook his people, who were here before anybody else. He couldn’t help but see the irony in the fact that the meeting was taking place in the Pocahontas Building, named after the Pamunkeys’ most famous ancestor.
All of the casino groups asked lawmakers to let them take control of their own destiny by using gambling to bring jobs and revenue to their communities.
The horse racing industry also showed up, asking lawmakers to slow down and avoid jeopardizing the new gambling-funded enterprise being built by Colonial Downs.
Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, said his bill is the best option because it would run sports betting through the Virginia Lottery, giving the state more control and more revenue.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, pitched his bill to have privately run sports betting at brick-and-mortar establishments, which he said would give potential bettors a reason to leave their moms’ basements.
Representatives from FanDuel and DraftKing, two fantasy sports sites that already operate online sportsbooks in New Jersey, said Virginia should leave room for them.
If legal sports betting doesn’t offer user-friendly online options, they said, Virginia gamblers will just keep using offshore betting sites.
Figuring out what gambling options work best for Virginia and what type of regulatory and financial structure they would entail are two of the Northam administration’s top concerns, according to Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne.
“There’s a lot of fairly complex situations that we need to understand,” said Layne, who made the case for a study while telling the Senate committee the governor does not support or oppose specific gambling bills.
Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, said the gambling bills appear to be “on a pathway” and asked for a “no BS” answer on how long a study might take.
With the help of outside experts, Layne said, the study could be completed by Nov. 1 at a cost of $175,000 to $200,000.
Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, said he wasn’t sure that money would be enough. If Virginia is going to expand gambling, he said, the state should hire top experts to make sure it doesn’t get a raw deal due to inexperience.
“If you’re going to jump in a tank with folks who are experts at swimming, you need a little bit more than blow-up inflatables,” DeSteph said.