Youngkin amendment to ‘skill game’ bill could keep slots-style machines out of IW, Surry

Published 10:12 am Thursday, April 18, 2024

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Slots-style betting machines would likely remain illegal throughout Isle of Wight and Surry counties under Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s requested amendments to a General Assembly bill seeking to overturn Virginia’s so-called “skill game” ban.

State Senate Bill 212, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, proposes to repeal a 2020 law that had reclassified the pay-to-play machines as illegal gambling, and instead tax them. Rouse’s bill passed the Senate in a 32-8 supermajority in February and cleared the House of Delegates in March in a narrower 51-45 vote. If the bill, dubbed the Virginia Small Business Economic Development Act, becomes law, it would authorize the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to begin issuing provisional registration to skill-game distributors, operators and host establishments in July and would direct the Virginia Lottery Board to develop regulations by Jan. 1, 2027, governing the machines’ use.

Youngkin, minutes ahead of his 11:59 p.m. deadline on April 8 to act on this year’s approved bills, returned SB 212 to the Senate with proposed revisions that would allow localities to opt out of skill game legalization via a ballot referendum and would explicitly prohibit skill games within 35 miles of any casino. Isle of Wight, even at its southernmost and westernmost borders, is within the 35-mile radius of the Rivers Casino in Portsmouth.

Youngkin’s amendments would further impose a 35-mile prohibition zone around any racetrack where horse betting is allowed, which would exclude much of Surry for its proximity to Colonial Downs in New Kent County.

If both legislative chambers, during their reconvened session on April 17, agree to all of Youngkin’s recommendations, the bill, as amended, becomes law. Each chamber also has the option of passing the original version of the bill by two-thirds majority or agreeing to some, but not all, of Youngkin’s recommendations and sending the bill back to him.

Prior to the current statewide ban, skill game machines were a common sight in convenience stores and truck stops.

Khushi Patel of Chesapeake, who owns the Supreme gas station and convenience store on South Church Street in Smithfield, says it’s “not right” that businesses like hers would, under the proposed amendment, continue to be subject to the statewide ban while others outside the 35-mile radius wouldn’t.

“The rules have to be the same for all business owners. … Not everybody can go to casino,” Patel said.

Others like Rajinder Singh of Carrsville, who owns the JB Food Mart gas station and convenience store on Walters Highway in Isle of Wight’s southern end, said whether skill games again become legal in Isle of Wight is a non-issue.

Singh said he’d taken his machines out even prior to the ban.

“Not too many people play,” he said.

On April 15, convenience stores across the state paused sales of lottery tickets for the day as part of an organized protest by the Virginia Merchants and Amusement Coalition or VA MAC of Youngkin’s proposed amendments. Patel said her store was not among those that participated.

Isle of Wight only began enforcing the ban in January after a three-year legal battle between Emporia truck stop owner Hermie Sadler and the state ended last fall with Virginia’s Supreme Court lifting an injunction against enforcement Sadler and his attorney, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, had secured in Greensville County Circuit Court in 2022.

Sadler’s lawsuit had contended the ban gave an unfair advantage to the handful of casinos the state has authorized to operate in Virginia’s larger cities.

Pace-O-Matic, a skill-game software developer that had championed Sadler’s cause, contends Virginia is missing out on an estimated $100 million by banning rather than taxing the slots-style machines, while the American Gaming Association, a casino industry lobbyist, contends the machines lack the same consumer protections required of casinos.

Under the current ban, anyone caught operating a skill game in Isle of Wight could face a five-figure fine and possible jail time, according to a January joint statement by Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips, Sheriff James Clarke Jr. and Smithfield and Windsor Police Chiefs Alonzo Howell and Rodney “Dan” Riddle.