In the 1990s, riverboat gaming became an issue in Virginia. Viewed as a midway point between legalizing gaming and banning it outright, several locations were viewed as prime contenders before the Virginia General Assembly rejected the proposal outright.
Former Speaker Bill Howell was a longtime opponent of casino gaming in Virginia. Yet after the “Big Blue Wave” of 2017 and Howell’s retirement, and coupled with federal recognition of Virginia’s few remaining indigenous tribes, casino gaming seems to be back on the table again — at least, in small doses:
“If this is an opening to more casino gambling in Virginia, that’s something we’re going to have to discuss with legislators and communities, et cetera,” Northam told reporters earlier this month. “But the way I see this moving forward is to reopen that track. And I think that’s a good thing for Virginia.”
Legislation to allow historical horse race wagering — a system that uses slots-style machines to let players gamble faster by betting on races that have already happened — passed the usually gambling-averse General Assembly last month.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch has more on the topic. Opposition to the bill — which cleared the House 79-21 and the Senate 31-9 — is coming from groups such as the Virginia Family Foundation, who have long opposed casino-style gaming:
“We’re incredibly disappointed that the General Assembly would pass a massive gambling expansion that is the equivalent of slots under the guise of saving the horse-racing industry,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia. “This definitely raises the concern that we have now opened the door to casinos.”
Horse racing has had a long pedigree in Virginia, going back to colonial days where Virginia’s gentry preoccupied themselves with the sport while managing their vast estates (which were also encumbered by debt, though not because of racing).
The introduction of slot machines at Colonial Downs opens up the door ever so slightly to other games of chance — blackjack, roulette, and of course poker. A bill to legalize poker as a game of chance for charitable gaming purposes was proposed in 2017 by State Senator Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) passed the senate with then-Lt. Governor Northam’s tiebreaking vote, but died in House General Laws subcommittee.
The reopening of Colonial Downs with slot machines is expected to generate about $161.9 million in tax revenue.