Sent for final committe action

Virginia: Senate committe advances Petersburg casino referendum in a 13-2 vote

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Petersburg's attempt at a casino referendum has cleared its second legislative hurdle. On a 13-2 vote, the Senate General Laws & Technology Committee passed Senate Bill 628 and referred it to the Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee for final committee action. The vote came one day after a General Laws subcommittee recommended the measure go through. 

As reported by local media, the move, which was required because the bill carries a fiscal impact statement, should be nothing more than a formality at this stage because the committee’s chairperson, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, is a Chief Co-patron with Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg. 

The bill resets the parameters for economically challenged cities to conduct a referendum about bringing a casino to their towns. The legislation removes a minimum 200,000-population stipulation and drops the rate floor for tax-exempted real-estate property in 2017 and the poverty rate in 2019.

It also requires that the host city had an unemployment rate of at least 13% in 2020, and Petersburg’s unemployment rate was 21.1%. These new parameters put Petersburg into consideration for such a vote and remove the city of Richmond as a potential fifth host city. 

Five years ago, the General Assembly approved the cities of Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond as possible host cities for casinos. Each city held a referendum on the issue, and Richmond was the only one where voters turned it down twice in a close 2021 vote and a much wider majority last year. Following Richmond's first defeat in 2021, Petersburg entered the game

Petersburg’s path to the referendum is far smoother this session than when it was pushed by Aird’s predecessor, Democratic Sen. Joe Morrissey. Morrissey’s politically aggressive actions to put Petersburg into consideration were rejected by his colleagues in the Senate and his counterparts in the House of Delegates. Lucas, a co-patron this year, nailed the lid shut on the issue in Senate Finance last year, later citing Morrissey as a major reason for failure, as reported by The Progress Index.

Last June, Aird, a former Petersburg delegate, overwhelmingly ousted Morrissey in the Democratic primary. She cruised to victory in the November election. While last year opponents were lining up against the casino plan, this year, only two General Laws committee members voted against it: Democrat Danica Roem of Prince William County and Republican Chris Head of Botetourt County. 

The Aird-Lucas bill is also getting some traction from other pieces of legislation that could silence Richmond voters on the matter for at least the next three years. Sen. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico County, put in a bill that also rewrote the parameters of the casino-host city requirements to eliminate Richmond. Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Orange County, submitted legislation that would block any city whose voters reject a casino referendum from voting again for three years after the rejection, which was at the core of the battle between Petersburg and Richmond over the casino.  

After the 2021 narrow defeat, Morrissey began the drive to bring the casino vote to Petersburg despite Richmond’s request for a do-over. After Senate Finance shot down the Petersburg referendum the first time, Morrissey, who at the time represented both Petersburg and south Richmond in the Senate, lobbied for a budget amendment blocking any revote until the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission studied Petersburg’s feasibility as a casino host. 

That report revealed that while Petersburg could generate $204 million in state gaming revenue as a host city, more revenue would be generated if casinos were in both Petersburg and Richmond. That refueled Richmond’s redo push that led to Petersburg’s defeat last year. 

Following a multi-million dollar advertising campaign by chosen Richmond casino vendor Urban One and Churchill Downs seeking referendum approval, 61% of voters in Virginia’s capital city rejected the second referendum. According to the above-mentioned media, Reeves said Wednesday afternoon his proposal to block a vote for three years was done to keep special interests “from trying to buy their votes.”  

Richmond does not appear to at least publicly want to block the Petersburg casino. Shortly after the second rejection, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said the city was ready to move on to other priorities.

In this session, all of Petersburg’s casino action is being generated in the state Senate. Del. Kim Taylor, R-Dinwiddie County, sponsored companion legislation last year but said this time around, she would encourage her House colleagues to adopt the Senate version when it comes to them after crossover when each chamber acts on their counterpart’s bills. 

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