RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia state Senate committee on Wednesday changed a major casino bill to require a study and another vote in 2020 before any casino licenses would be granted.
News outlets report the Senate Finance Committee agreed with a plan by Republican Majority Leader Tommy Norment of James City to stop any local referendums on casinos until a comprehensive study is done. The committee voted 12-4 to advance the plan, diminishing hopes of casino supporters as the legislative session approaches the halfway point.
"I can't understand on an issue of this paramount importance why we would not want to make an informed and deliberate decision," Norment said.
The bill orders the state's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to conduct a comprehensive gambling study with a Nov. 1 deadline.
Norment's proposal modifies a bill which originally included a study but would have allowed cities to hold referendums as soon as November. In its new form, the bill would prevent Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville from holding voter referendums on casinos until after the study is completed in the fall.
The General Assembly is juggling several proposed casino projects from both commercial gambling interests and the Pamunkey Indian tribe. In December, Norfolk announced a partnership with the tribe and its plans to build a $700 million casino, resort and spa next to Harbor Park on the Elizabeth River. At the time, the tribe was planning to seek federal approval for a casino in Norfolk, but state lawmakers later agreed on compromise legislation to allow casinos in five cities, including Norfolk.
Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray, whose tribe would be allowed to build casinos in Norfolk and Richmond under the proposed bill, said he wasn't bothered by its being delayed until 2020.
"It seems like it's a good thing for everyone involved," Gray said of Norment's plan. "We're seeing it move forward, and the tribe also wants it done correctly."
Casino supporters have urged speed, arguing Virginia would risk losing gambling dollars to other states if policymakers delay their projects. Gov. Ralph Northam has made it clear he favors putting the bills on pause to allow for a study.
State Sen. Bill Carrico, who along with two other senators sponsored the bill which Norment's measure modified, opposed Norment's amendment, saying there was no reason to delay voter referendums and cited concerns about competition from casino projects moving forward in Kentucky and West Virginia, which border southwest Virginia.