Both the Virginia House and Senate approved legislation Tuesday to allow casinos by referendum in Bristol and four other economically distressed cities.
The House of Delegates voted 61-33 Tuesday afternoon to approve House Bill 4 for residents of Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond to have referenda on the casino question.
On Tuesday night, the Senate approved similar legislation — Senate Bill 36 — by a margin of 29-11. Each bill will now shift to the other chamber for review and potential approval. While not identical, both bills are similar.
“I appreciate the strong support that HB 4 and SB 36 have received as they have advanced through each chamber,” Jim McGlothlin, chairman and CEO of The United Co. and one of two primary developers of the proposed Hard Rock Bristol Resort and Casino, said in a written statement. “Legislators clearly recognize that Bristol needs a long-term, sustainable solution for our local economy. We still have a long way to go in this legislative session before the bills are reconciled and approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor, but I am very encouraged by the progress we are making.”
The session is scheduled to adjourn March 7.
“Today, in passing HB 4, the House of Delegates embraced our goal to bring a significant economic development project to Bristol,” said Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House and Senate to pass this bill.”
Freshman Del. Will Wampler, R-Abingdon, was among those voting for the legislation.
“I voted for the bill because I believe it can be a meaningful piece to a better performing economy in Southwest Virginia,” Wampler wrote in an email. “However, I think the bigger opportunity surrounding the proposed project is the re-development of the West State Street corridor into downtown Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee — an area that also has Opportunity Zone eligibility and is the gateway into the city from Interstate 81.”
The Senate held second reading and engrossed the bill Tuesday just after 6 p.m. and voted its final approval less than two hours later.
“The Senate made a clear and important policy statement today in passing SB 36,” said Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon. “The bill now moves on to the House for consideration. My colleagues recognized the unique challenges that Bristol faces, as well as her four sister cities.”
City Manager Randy Eads praised the efforts of lawmakers.
“Last year, at this time, we were dead in the water. It’s amazing how one year makes a difference,” Eads said. “A lot of people have put in a lot of hard work on this project. I can’t say enough about our Southwest delegation and Sen. Louise Lucas, D- Portsmouth. They’ve worked tirelessly to bring this to fruition.”
Senators on Tuesday rejected a proposed substitute bill and proposed amendments by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Dale City, who questioned a provision to award up to 2,500 additional slotlike historic horse racing games to Colonial Downs Group. The majority of those would be dedicated to an as-yet-unopened Rosie’s Gaming Emporium planned for Dumfries.
Both bills establish the Virginia Lottery Board as the state agency to oversee casinos and designate funding for expanded staffing to regulate casino operations.
The legislation would require detailed background checks into everyone involved in casino operations and would establish and fund a program to treat those with gambling addictions.
Both also include provisions to address potential impacts on the incumbent Colonial Downs Group and its chain of Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums. A state study found the group would be negatively impacted financially by casinos operating in Virginia.
The greatest difference between each chamber’s bill is the proposed tax rates. The House bill features a two-tier system of taxation on gaming revenues, based on the documented financial investment in a casino. It proposes collecting taxes on annual gaming revenues at 15%, 20% and 28% with different breakdowns for larger casinos with greater investment.
The Senate version makes no distinction between casino investments and proposes to collect taxes at 27%, 31% and 40%.
Under the House bill, a locality would receive between 5% and 7% of taxes on gaming, while the Senate bill proposes localities receive between 9% and 11%.