Va. Senate OKs casino legislation, but House extends deadline

Va. Senate OKs casino legislation, but House extends deadline

The Virginia Senate late Saturday twice voted 27-12 to approve compromise legislation allowing casinos by referendums, but at 11:13 p.m., the House voted to extend the deadline for regular bills to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, the original bill patron, presented the conference committee report featuring compromises on the gaming tax rate and a series of other changes. Senators approved both House Bill 4 and Senate Bill 36, companion bills to allow one privately owned casino to operate in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond, if approved by a majority of voters in each city.

Casinos would be regulated by the Virginia Lottery Board.

Local business leaders Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacy are prepared to develop the Hard Rock Bristol Resort and Casino at the former Bristol Mall. The estimated $400 million project is to

include a 100,000- square-foot gambling area, shopping, dining and entertainment, hotel and convention center.

House patron Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, presented a detailed review of the report Saturday afternoon to the House of Delegates, but lawmakers in that chamber twice passed by the measure without debate or a vote — waiting to see what action the Senate took.

Both chambers convened at noon Saturday but recessed frequently for meetings and conferences throughout what was scheduled to be the final day of the session.

The legislation would require a minimum investment of $300 million in each casino, rather than the previously approved $250 million. It would also require a $15 million casino operator’s license fee — as proposed in the Senate bill. The license would be good for 10 years but reviewed annually by state officials.

In prior versions, the House bill proposed a two-tier level of taxation, but the compromise bill sets one level with an 18% rate on the first $200 million in annual net gaming revenue, 23% on revenues between $200 million and $400 million and 30% on revenues above $400 million. The previous Senate bill proposed rates of 27%, 31% and 40%.

Those rates are higher than the 17% median tax rate suggested in the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report issued last November.

Localities could receive taxes of 6% from the first $200 million, 7% on revenues between $200 million and $400 million and 8% on revenues above $400 million, under the compromise bill.

If ultimately approved by both chambers, the measure would then go to Gov. Ralph Northam. If signed, it would go into effect July 1. Locally, it would give the final decision to Bristol, Virginia’s 11,143 registered voters. The bill would require the referendum occur in conjunction with the Nov. 3 presidential election in all of the cities except Richmond.

It would also expand the Virginia Lottery Board from five members to seven, with the two new members to be a law enforcement officer and an accountant.

The compromise bill also proposes to allow casino operators to offer a smartphone app for sports gaming before actual casinos are operational.

Both contain language to formally establish the “Regional Improvement Commission,” which would receive the entire local share of gaming tax revenue from a Bristol casino and distribute it among Bristol and the counties included in the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Bristol service district — Bland, Buchanan, Dickenson, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise and Wythe.

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