RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers have approved a broad expansion of gambling options in a state that's been largely loath to embracing new betting options in the past.
Lawmakers gave final approval Sunday to legislation to allow voters in Bristol, Danville, Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth to hold local referendums later this year on whether to approve casinos. Legislators also have approved approved the expansion of slot-like machines and signed off on online lottery sales and sports betting. Gov. Ralph Northam still needs to give final approval before the legislation can become law.
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 as more conservative lawmakers leave office.
Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas, who has pushed for casinos for decades, said lawmakers finally realized how much money Virginia is losing out to neighboring states.
"It was just like a huge sucking sound - ching, ching, ching - our cash just leaving Virginia," Lucas said.
Advocates also said large-scale resorts with casinos are critical to helping economically disadvantaged areas by boosting local tax revenues and creating jobs.
Conservative groups and some Republican lawmakers warned that new casinos would enrich wealthy developers and casino operators while hurting the state's poor.
"I don't think there's anything we could do to increase the amount of large out-of-state money in Virginia politics ... and at the same time exploit a lot of Virginians," said Republican Sen. David Suetterlein.
Developers, local governments, casino operators and lawmakers quietly negotiated the casino legislation to determine how many casinos the state should allow and who will get to run them. Key players included Jim McGlothlin, a wealthy coal industrialist who wants to build a casino and resort in Bristol, and the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which is eyeing a potential casinos in Richmond and Norfolk.
"After centuries of disenfranchisement and social injustices, the Pamunkey Tribe is on the verge of ensuring the long-term success of the tribe," tribe spokesman Jay Smith said.
Lawmakers also increased 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 1,650 of the machines at a new location in Prince William County.
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.
Online sports betting was the subject of last-minute negotiations over what kind of wagers should be allowed on college sports. Lawmakers agreed to ban bets on any Virginia-based teams after concerns were raised by college presidents.