RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- The odds are stacked against a bill that would allow Peterburg to put a casino project on the ballot this fall while delaying a second vote in Richmond, but the push still appears to have a narrow path forward in the General Assembly.
A proposal to build a $1.4 billion casino in Peterburg stayed alive after winning the approval of the House Finance Committee on Friday. The panel voted 11-9 to advance the bill to the House floor, where it needs to pass next week before getting a second chance in the state Senate.
“We are absolutely thrilled with the momentum that this bill has had,” said bill sponsor Del. Kim Taylor (R-Dinwiddie) after the vote. “Petersburg is open for business and this is the greatest opportunity our city has had in decades.”
The effort was dealt a major blow on Thursday when the Senate Finance Committee killed a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) on an 7-8 vote. One member, Senator Tommy Norment (R-James City), was absent.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Norment said with a smirk when asked how he plans to vote moving forward.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) was grim about the bill’s prospects on Friday. She supports allowing Richmond to hold another referendum but she’s a “hard no” on the Petersburg casino.
“There are a billion ways to bring back a bill so I don’t know, but I think it’s dead,” Howell said.
At least some of those “no” votes are open to negotiation.
Some were turned off by a last-minute amendment that added wage protections for Petersburg workers, including Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) and Sen. Frank Ruff (R-Mecklenburg).
Ruff said representatives from Caesars, a resort casino being built in Danville, are worried they would have to adopt similar measures down the road if they make the final bill.
“I committed to support it begrudgingly and, if it was not in there, I probably would support it yes,” Ruff said. “The door is not closed.”
In 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill allowing five localities to move forward with casino projects pending local approval in a ballot referendum. Four of those developments are already underway, but Richmond voters rejected the idea in 2021.
A recent report confirmed that two casinos could sustainably coexist in Central Virginia on top of the four others, but it risks making other projects less profitable.
“My primary concern is that we don’t want to become a New Jersey, or some other places, where there is an over-proliferation of casinos. We want the ones that we have developed in Virginia to do well,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, who represents Portsmouth, where a casino recently opened.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who also voted “no,” said she would be more inclined to support a bill allowing both Richmond and Petersburg to hold ballot referendums this fall.
“The JLARC study found both could sustain a casino. I just don’t want to pit the voters of one locality against the other,” McClellan.
But lawmakers behind the Petersburg casino are taking an alll-or-nothing approach.
Del. Taylor said she is open to compromise, but not if it means Richmond will be holding a referendum alongside Petersburg in 2023.
“It is a destination casino. If we have two casinos, we aren’t going to have the quality that we want or we need,” Taylor said.
In a phone interview, Morrissey said he doesn’t know what will happen if the House bill makes it back to the Senate, but he said there have been no conversations to date about authorizing a referendum through the budget as a back-up plan. A similar maneuver last year kept Petersburg in the running after legislation failed.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Morrissey said.
On Friday, Howell was clear that language aiding Peterburg’s efforts would not be included in the Senate budget.
If nothing passes in the General Assembly this year, lawmakers say they don’t have a problem with Richmond holding another vote this fall.
“I think it’s up to the voters in Richmond,” McClellan said. “I don’t think it’s up to us in the General Assembly to make that decision for them.”