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Casino bills cued up in historic session

Casino bills cued up in historic session

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Legislation to allow casinos by referendum in five Virginia cities including Danville is queued up for Wednesday's landmark General Assembly reconvened session.

Both the state Senate and House of Delegates are scheduled to gavel back into session at noon, albeit not in their traditional chambers due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Ralph Northam’s directives prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people.

The 40-member Senate is scheduled to hold its meeting inside the Virginia Science Museum while the 100-member House will meet outside in Capitol Square. That area will be closed to the public to allow elected officials to follow social distancing standards.

“It appears that this will be only the second formal meeting of the House of Delegates outside of the ‘House Chamber’ over its 401-year history,” said Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol.

“It’s a sign of the unique times we find ourselves in and the clerk’s office has done a good job in ensuring that we can conduct business and that the public will be able to view the proceedings.”

Both elected bodies will deliberate a number of bills including the revised state budget and casino legislation.

House Bill 4 and Senate Bill 36 would allow Bristol and four other cities to stage separate referendums later this year to allow one casino to operate in each city. Both chambers approved the legislation last month but must take up amendments from Gov. Northam. Two are minor wording changes. The third seeks to direct the state’s share of taxes on net gaming revenues toward public school construction projects rather than the general fund.

Northam’s amendment would direct funds “not appropriated pursuant to subdivisions B 1 through B 4 [between 8% and 10% carved for cities and specific state categories including problem gaming] shall remain in the [gaming proceeds] fund until appropriated by the General Assembly for programs established to address public school construction, renovations, or upgrades.”

A 2019 Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study forecasts the five proposed casinos could generate about $260 million in annual state gaming tax revenue by the year 2025.

One of the legislative patrons, Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, called the amendment a “unique opportunity” to resolve an expensive problem that has heretofore not been addressed.

“Fixing our deteriorating schools is an issue that unites legislators across political and geographical divides,” Pillion said Tuesday. “Republicans and Democrats from Lee County to Norfolk recognize this is an issue that needs our attention. The amendment, which I support, will allow a portion of state revenues collected from casino projects to be returned to localities to fix our schools, directly benefitting our students and teachers. I am hopeful this solution will have broad bipartisan support in both the Senate and House.”

If lawmakers reject the amendment, the casino legislation would go back to Gov. Northam. If approved, the ultimate decision will fall to the residents of Bristol on Nov. 3.

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