Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have passed bills to study legalizing casinos and sports betting. But the top two Republican leaders have different ideas about how to do it.
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, appeared before a House of Delegates committee Tuesday to publicly negotiate with House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, over the final product that will emerge on one of the marquee issues of the 2019 session. After a lengthy discussion of multiple gambling bills earlier in the session, the Senate merged all the casino proposals into one piece of legislation that retains the basic framework of the original bills but would not allow any casinos until after the state completed a study and lawmakers vote on the issue again next year.
The House passed a bill to set up a standalone Gaming Study Commission that would have a more neutral starting point because it didn’t grow out of the legislation pushed by backers of specific casino projects in Bristol, Portsmouth, Danville and Norfolk.
On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee voted 12-5 to conform the Senate bill to the House version, setting the stage for a late-session negotiation to reconcile the two approaches. If each chamber insists on its own version, the differences between the two bills will need to be ironed out by a panel of lawmakers known as a conference committee.
Cox, a gambling opponent who chairs the Rules Committee, told Norment he was concerned a study bill geared toward allowing referendums only in certain cities would “prejudice” the study.
“This pretty much, to me, sort of makes you look at it from their standpoint,” Cox said.
Norment said he didn’t see any philosophical differences so large they couldn’t be addressed with an amendment to the Senate bill.
“I don’t think there’s any inherent bias in this bill,” Norment said.
But Norment said he’s not sure the bills are close enough in substance to justify swapping one for the other.
“There’s a serious germaneness issue there. I say that not in a threatening tone. But thinking ahead,” Norment said.
The Senate version of the bill grew out of proposals for commercial casinos in Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville, three economically struggling areas looking to revitalize through casino-related revenue and jobs. The Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which is pursuing plans for a riverfront casino in Norfolk, jumped into the mix by announcing it would be willing to operate under commercial laws rather than wait years for the federal approvals needed for a tribal casino. Though Norfolk is the tribe’s first option, the Senate bill includes Richmond as a fallback.
No casinos could open in those five cities without the passage of a local voter referendum. Under the Senate bill, those referendums could not take place until after the study is completed and the General Assembly revisits the issue in 2020.
The House bill does not include any referendum process and does not name specific localities that could have casinos if their residents approve. The House’s study commission would essentially start from scratch, with a goal of identifying the “policy goals of the commonwealth” and looking at how all forms of gambling could or couldn’t help the state get what it wants.
Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, who co-patroned the original casino bill on behalf of the Bristol project, said the Senate study would at least keep Bristol’s plans “on track.”
“It takes 18 months to build a facility,” Carrico said. “Knowing that we’re moving in that direction the developers can still look at how they would approach that.”
The House version of the bill has not yet been heard in the Senate.
Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, who sponsored the House bill, said his version allows a “holistic approach” to a study.
“The House plan calls for a comprehensive study of all gaming, not just the bills introduced this session,” Peace said.