RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)–Virginia lawmakers are being accused of sneaking an attempt to ban skill games into the recently passed state budget without any public input.
Skill games are common in gas stations, convenience stores and truck stops throughout the state. While they resemble slot machines, supporters argue they require some skill, similar to traditional arcade games.
The General Assembly passed a bill to ban them in 2020, after the unregulated and untaxed machines had already proliferated. More recently, a judge blocked the enforcement of the law during an ongoing legal battle, allowing customers to keep playing for now.
NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler and Senator Bill Stanley (R-Galax City), who are fighting for the survival of skill games in court, said in a statement that the state budget is “yet another assault on freedom, tramples on constitutional rights, and harms Virginia small businesses.”
Stanley slammed a small group of negotiators for inserting language on skill games in the must-pass budget at the last minute and interfering with an issue that is pending in court.
“What a select few legislators have done here is to force feed to the rest of the membership of the General Assembly a radical change to the criminal code that was not previously introduced as a stand-alone bill in the regular session, never debated by any committee, and never fully vetted by both chambers through the regular legislative process,” Stanley said in a statement.
“Quite frankly, this budget amendment is a jumbled mess of word spaghetti meant to placate the outside gambling and casino interests that seek to monopolize this emerging industry,” Stanley continued.
Stanley didn’t respond to an interview request on Friday and was not present at the General Assembly this week due to a coronavirus infection.
The budget language blindsided the skill games industry, as well as several lawmakers.
In an interview on Friday, A1 Amusement Operations Manager Ashley Jones said one lawmaker told her that the budget didn’t address skill games at all.
“I didn’t even know this was coming until June 1st, this change in the language that could upend our entire business,” Jones said. “It’s not fair. They didn’t give the people a chance to speak up. They’re doing this with no notice.”
Senator Steve Newman (R-Lynchburg), one of fourteen budget conferees, said in an interview hours before the deal was passed on Wednesday that he “didn’t really know for sure” whether the spending plan attempts to ban the games. However, his stance is no secret.
“Let me just be very clear. I’m not in favor of skill games. I don’t believe they’re much of a skill,” Newman said, “I believe they are a rip off for the people of Virginia. You should not play a skill game. It’s not a good investment for you and you are most likely going to lose.”
House Appropriations Committee Chair Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), the top Republican budget negotiator, said in an interview after the compromise was released on Monday that his goal was to clarify the definition of skill games as compared to amusement devices.
“We are not saying they are outlawed. We’re not saying they’re legal. We’re just setting out the definitions. It’s going to court. We’ll let the judge decide,” Knight said.
When asked in a phone interview on Friday if he thinks the clarification of those definitions could influence the outcome of the court case and stop the ban from being overturned, Knight said, “I do not know. I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know if it changes it or not. Supposedly, there is some kind of injunction. I just put definitions in, along with Senator Howell, so when the case goes forward we don’t have any gray area as to what a skill game is as opposed to an amusement device.”
Knight said he crafted the language with Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Chair Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), his Democratic counterpart, as well as legislative staff.
Asked if lobbyists for the casino industry were involved, Knight said, “Zero that I’m aware of.”
Knight and Howell refused to answer questions from another media outlet on whether the budget would address skill games before the budget was released.
Both Knight and Howell voted for the bill to ban skill games in the 2020 session. There was no legislation introduced in the 2022 session revisiting the issue.
Knight said he has encouraged the industry to work on legislation to legalize the games in the 2023 session. He said the bill should address age requirements, provisions for problem gambling, enforcement and tax rates, among other things.
“What we typically do in Virginia is we want to come through the front door with legislation,” Knight said.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin still has a chance to amend the budget. A spokesperson wouldn’t comment specifically on skill games.