After working all weekend on what they say is a compromise that makes everyone happy, a group of senators and the Pamunkey Indian chief have agreed on one bill that would permit casinos in five cities, including Portsmouth, Norfolk and Richmond.
Under a new bill that rolls three proposals into one, the Pamunkey Indian tribe could build a casino in Norfolk and Richmond, Sen. Louise Lucas’s Portsmouth casino could be a possibility, and two senators in Danville and Bristol would get a shot in Southwest Virginia.
If the bill passes both chambers and gets approval from Gov. Ralph Northam, the five localities could hold referendums as soon as November to approve casinos.
The senators and officials whose cities would benefit from casinos have framed the bill as a lifeline, a way to revive distressed communities that have suffered for too long without economically sustainable endeavors.
On Monday, the Senate General Laws and Technology committee voted 9-3 to move the bill forward to the Senate Finance Committee, where it’ll get a fiscal impact study.
In the meantime, the bill also proposes a Virginia Lottery Board study — based on Northam’s recommendation — to see how other states have handled gambling. The study would be finished in November and cost $175,000.
Richmond also was included in Sen. Lynwood Lewis’s original bill, which allowed casinos only in localities with more than 200,000 people, but Pamunkey spokesman Jay Smith said there are no public plans to open one in Richmond.
Lewis’s population requirement also meant Virginia Beach and Chesapeake would have been eligible for casinos. Smith said he wasn’t sure why those cities were removed from the compromise bill.
“We felt comfortable having it limited to two (cities),” he said.
In the meantime, the Pamunkey Indians will keep trying to get the Norfolk land into a federal trust and approved for gaming, which Smith estimated would take two years.
If the Pamunkey achieve this, and if the bill passes and Norfolk voters approve it, they could technically set up more than one casino in Norfolk.
As for having a competing casino across the water in Portsmouth, Lucas said the Pamunkey might not put their first casino in Norfolk, and this bill “would make everyone happy.”
One lawmaker not satisfied with the compromise was Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, who took issue with the fact that the study wouldn’t determine how best to go about implementing gambling. He voted against the bill.
“This seems pretty fast moving to me,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed Friday, when it seemed other senators wanted to hit the brakes.
“Is there any reason for any urgency to this?” Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, asked Friday.
For those that would benefit from casinos, Surovell’s question was easy to answer: The sooner the state allows casinos, the sooner localities can get out of debt and bring long-overdue revenues to their residents.
“We need this to survive,” Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe said Friday.
A group of delegates will also try to pass casino legislation in the House. All have been referred to the Rules Committee, which Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, chairs.
Cox’s spokesman Parker Slaybaugh said Cox has always personally been against gambling, and has a record of not personally supporting gambling-related issues.