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Virginia Casino Study Estimates 7,500 New Jobs, But Problems Too

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment plays a historical horse racing machine
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment plays a historical horse racing machine at the opening of Rosie's Gaming Emporium at Colonial Downs in April. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

A highly-anticipated, 178-page study into future casino gaming in Virginia landed with a thud on lawmaker’s desks on Monday, providing lots of details but few easy answers on the future of gaming in Virginia.

Lawmakers had hoped the report would clarify a contentious issue that reared its head during the 2019 General Assembly session. Supporters said Virginia needed to act quickly to avoid losing more revenue to neighboring states with casinos. Skeptics worried the projections were optimistic and had concerns about the main bill that emerged, which would have pre-selected casino operators in five Virginia localities.

In the end, they kicked the issue over to the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLARC) for study.

In the resulting report, researchers with JLARC estimated that five proposed casinos in Richmond, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol would create at least 7,500 full-time equivalent jobs across the state paying a median wage of $33,000.

These casinos, alongside sports betting, online casino gambling and historical horse racing machines, would also create between $83 million and $571 million in net state revenue, with JLARC settling on a most likely estimate of around $370 million annually. By comparison, the Virginia Lottery brought in around $600 million last fiscal year.

JLARC says casinos would take a $30 million bite out of Lottery revenue. The report says the Lottery is well-positioned to regulate future casinos but would need an internal reorganization, new staff, and new funding.

JLARC’s team suggested a casino state tax rate of 27%, which it said was the median charged by other states. The rate far more than the 10-15% suggested by lawmakers last session, which JLARC said would bring down state revenues without creating much additional economic activity.

The study’s authors recommended a competitive bidding process for the casino projects overseen by committees. They noted casino gaming would likely deliver a big hit to newly-opened historical horse racing operations, including Rosie’s Emporium at Colonial Downs.

Outgoing-GOP Senate Majority leader Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg) said the report presented a “multitude of legislative complexities” that suggested the wisdom in moving “incrementally.”

Across the aisle, Democratic House Majority-leader elect Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) seemed to agree.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I know I just wanted to have as much information as possible.”

Others, like outgoing Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) who prefacing his remarks by noting that “Kirk Cox has never really been for casino gambling,” were worried about problem gambling, including addictions and mental health issues.

“The problem gambling piece has always given me tremendous pause,” Cox said.

The report notes that adding casinos would “increase the number of Virginians at risk from problem gambling.” It says the state currently devotes almost no resources to the issue, a situation it could remedy with an investment that in programs that focus on problem gamblers as well as their families.