Roller Coaster Casino Ride

by Jon Baliles

The road to a casino in the General Assembly is on a roller coaster ride that is careening down the hill and likely to jump the tracks at any minute. Last week alone, the bill that would allow a casino referendum in Petersburg and block a second one in Richmond until Petersburg has a chance has taken the following ride:

  • Cleared a Finance General Laws subcommittee on a 7-2 vote on January 26;
  • Cleared a Senate General Laws committee on a 11-4 vote Wednesday;
  • Failed in a Senate Finance committee on a 7-8 vote Thursday evening;
  • Cleared a House of Delegates General Laws subcommittee on a 5-2 vote on Tuesday;
  • Cleared a House of Delegates General Laws committee vote 7-4 on Thursday;
  • Cleared the House of Delegates Appropriations committee 11-9 on Friday afternoon.

So what’s next? Well, there are three possibilities: (1) the bill dies because the House and Senate won’t find a suitable compromise, which means the Petersburg proposal could vanish and Richmond gets another referendum; (2) the Petersburg referendum is inserted into the final budget language (as it was last year) and their referendum will proceed and Richmond’s put on hold; or (3) the zombie apocalypse will commence.

Personally, I’m rooting for the apocalypse.

Michael Martz at the Richmond Times-Dispatch has the details and samplings from some of the legislators: “The Senate Finance vote to reject Morrissey’s bill was a surprise, raising the possibility that the Senate is using the casino proposal as a poker chip in its upcoming negotiations with the House on a budget. But senators said Friday that the vote reflected divided opinion about the wisdom of allowing Petersburg to build a casino resort and blocking Richmond….”

I’m not sure wisdom is at play here, just pure politics and lobbying muscle. For example, as Martz writes, Senate Finance Co-Chair Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said she and other members are concerned about building a big casino resort near Petersburg that also could hurt the profitability of a casino that has already opened in Portsmouth.” But the legislature seemingly had no qualms about allowing a rival casino just a Tom Brady pass across the Elizabeth River in Norfolk. And if a Petersburg casino would hurt Portsmouth, how would Richmond’s casino also not have a deleterious impact?

We are talking legislation, which means it’s politics now, because it certainly isn’t the same as talking rationally or logically.

Before all the hubbub of the last several days, Senator Bell from Loudon County went on the Pod Virginia podcast earlier this week and offered an analysis that offers a little more context and perspective — and, as it turns out, was a bit prescient.

Bell said the project had to be about more than just a casino and that other phases around it should stimulate economic growth beyond gambling. The proposal he said he saw does that because “gambling halls” (his term) by themselves are not nearly as successful on their own. He pointed to the Beau Rivage casino and resort in Gulfport, Mississippi as an example of such a project and the positive impact it has had in the 20+ years it has been there. While a huge project like the one proposed in Petersburg will also require more services from Petersburg, Bell also said they would have time to plan and provide those services.

Then came the question from the hosts asking about the possibility of both cities having referendums and casinos. Bell said he preferred one or the other (the state only has one available license to award) and he said the Cordish project offered much more than the Richmond project, which was just the casino complex.

Bell said that in the Tuesday subcommittee presentation, Petersburg showed their map/plan and their vision of a project beyond a casino and the Richmond advocates who spoke did not share or show a vision beyond the casino. They just said they wanted another chance for the casino. As Michael Martz pointed out in the Times-Dispatch, Cordish Chief Operating Officer Zed Smith told the subcommittee, “Our core business is not gaming. Our core business is developing transformational projects.”

At the same meeting, Richmond Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille said Richmond’s first referendum failed because “there were a combination of factors that led to the vote, saying it was ‘not sufficiently vetted.’” Her answer to the Senator’s question “Does Richmond deserve another chance?” she replied, “Yes. Did folks have an opp[ortunity]? Yes. Do we get a second to get it? Why not?” (Click here for the video at 1:34:20)

So the fierce lobbying and talking points are flying around this weekend publicly (and the daggers are out privately), and this matter will likely be decided by Tuesday. I think Bell was right in his prediction that this is a tough decision and the vote (or budget wrangling) will be close. But his most ominous prediction was that he believes a referendum to approve a casino in Petersburg would pass, but that there is “no evidence” that another referendum in Richmond would pass.

Evidence? Who needs evidence, Senator? We just didn’t vet it well enough or have absolute clarity….

Republished with permission from RVA 5×5.