The Virginia General Assembly passed a state budget Wednesday that includes language designed to delay a second referendum vote for a casino in Richmond and ban skill games in the commonwealth.
The budget drew fire from Virginia businessman and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler in a news release, which stated that “legislative leaders are working to harm small businesses and disregard their constitutional rights by inserting language at the eleventh hour into the latest proposed state budget that would ban legal skill games.”
An estimated 9,000 skill game machines are in the state; they are often found in bars, convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants. Also known as “gray machines,” skill games look, act and feel like a casino slot machine. But a player can change the outcome of each spin on skill games, while casino slot machines use a random number generator to determine a win or loss.
Sadler has been fighting Virginia lawmakers over the ban placed on skill games. The main argument raised from Sadler was a constitutional free speech claim that the commonwealth cannot ban skill games as it infringes on citizens' First Amendment rights.
Judge Issued Temporary Restraining Order
A judge issued a temporary restraining order on Dec. 6, 2021 — still in effect — allowing skill games to operate in the state. Another court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 2. Until then, skill games are currently available in Virginia.
“According to draft budget language released on May 29, a small handful of legislative leaders, working behind closed doors and with no public input, have inserted wording into the budget proposal that would radically alter the existing criminal code to ban skill games,” The Stanley Law Group said in a news release. State Sen. Bill Stanley (R-20) is Sadler's attorney.
“A few legislative leaders, working on behalf of big out-of-state casino lobbyists, have doubled down on attempting to restrict the constitutional rights of all Virginians,” Sadler said. “Virginia small businesses who depend on skill game revenue to pay their bills.”
“I expect that this new improper attempt to eliminate skill games will likewise find the same fate as their previous attempt did upon a review by the courts at our trial this November," Stanley concluded.
The legislation to prohibit skills gaming came shortly after the commonwealth approved the construction of several casinos in the state. Casinos are now planned in Danville, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Bristol. A fifth casino will be voted on a second time in Richmond.
Some opponents claimed lawmakers supported a ban on skill games to cut back on competition for the casinos.
Richmond Casino Vote Delay
Now considered a gambling state with Virginia sports betting launching on Jan. 21, 2021, and casinos on the way, the commonwealth has exceeded $4 billion in total wagering handle since the market went live.
Virginia online casinos have not been legalized as part of the gambling expansion in the state.
The City of Richmond plans to hold a second referendum vote for a casino during this year's November election. Voters rejected the first referendum last year.
But language added to the recently passed budget, Amendment Item 4-8.03 #1c, prevents Richmond from holding another local referendum on casino gaming until November 2023.
Richmond's Director of Economic Development, Leonard Sledge, assured Richmond City Council members on May 9 that in November voters will determine the fate of the proposed $565-million project named ONE Casino & Resort.
Sledge told council members the project would bring more than 1,500 new jobs to the city paying a minimum of $15 an hour, provide outstanding community benefits and a compensation package to the City of Richmond in terms of new general fund revenue.
Richmond Plans Referendum
“We are also very mindful of the fact that, as the state general assembly has not passed a budget yet, there could very well be preventive language that seeks to restrict the city's ability to hold a November referendum,” Sledge said on May 9. “But we are of the mindset that with the court order that we have being final and non-appealable, the Richmond voters will still have the opportunity in November and with the early voting period to cast their ballot to make a decision as to whether or not they would like to have a resort casino operating in the City of Richmond.”
“They (Richmond) can have a referendum if they want to, but we just won’t agree to issue the license,” said House Appropriations Chair Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The budget also calls for a study of the revenue potential of a casino in Petersburg.