RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — So-called “skill games” are living their final days in Virginian convenience stores, truck stops, and eateries. A ban on the games, also known as “grey machines” takes effect on July 1.
However, a new lawsuit from former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler aims to stop Virginia’s upcoming ban.
A lengthy complaint was filed in Greensville County Monday and targets the Commonwealth, Governor Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, and the Virginia ABC. State Senator and attorney Bill Stanley, a republican, is representing Sadler.
The General Assembly originally voted to prohibit the machines in the 2020 session. At the time, some democratic and republican lawmakers argued they were taking business away from the Virginia Lottery and that they would pose a threat to the emerging casino industry. Ultimately, lawmakers decided to put the ban on hold in favor of a temporary tax that is still being used to support schools and small business grants during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, more than a dozen small-business owners who said they rely on the games for revenue joined Sadler and Stanley at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.
“What we did in the general assembly was wrong,” Stanley said.
During the session, he voted against the ban but said he is not a fan of gambling altogether.
“If you’re going to legalize gambling in the Commonwealth of Virginia, then you gotta rip the bandaid off. You gotta legalize all gambling,” he said. “Picking and choosing winners and losers is un-American and un-Virginian.”
Sadler, from Emporia, owns several businesses with skill games inside, including Sadler Travel Plazas and restaurants. Sadler said he has relied on the revenue coming from skill games for 20 years, which became especially important during the financially draining pandemic.
“Let people decide where they want to go spend their money,” he said. “It’s enabled us to keep people on the payroll, to pay this overtime, to absorb some of these other costs.”
The former NASCAR driver said he has been worried about – and lobbying against- the ban for two years. “I’m disappointed that it’s come to this point that we feel like we’re at a crossroads.”
The group said the ban won’t only hurt business but argue it’s unconstitutional and violates their rights.
In explaining how they believe the ban is unconstitutional, Stanley said the “family entertainment exception” in the law violates Sadler’s free speech rights by restricting the games that business owners can offer and also discriminates against businesses that don’t market toward families or children.
“The skill game ban is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad and violates the due process guarantee in the Virginia Constitution insofar as it does not give a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know or understand what is prohibited thereby, and it includes within its broad sweep unquestionably legal activities and constitutionally protected speech,” the attorney’s office stated. “Defendants have been sued because they have specifically implemented and are charged with the enforcement of the ban, which goes into effect on July 1, 2021.”
Governor Northam had originally suggested taxing the games instead of banning them. When asked for his comment on Monday, he said it’s clear the general assembly has made their choice.
“That’s up to the legislature and I don’t anticipate them [the games] moving forward after this year,” Northam said.
Sadler is also seeking injunctive relief from the Greensville County Circuit Court, which could prevent the ban from being enforced as the lawsuit is pending. However, he’s not optimistic about the immediate timeline. In Virginia, a defendant has 21 days to answer.
“We’re not going to make the July 1 deadline,” Stanley said. “They will have to mothball these machines for a while.”
8News asked why they are filing the lawsuit just two weeks before the ban takes effect. Sadler said it’s because he didn’t believe it would come to this.
“As a small business operator, I want to know is if it really legal for the government to come in and take from us and give to them,” he said, referring to casinos that aren’t expected to be open until 2023. “They’re doing away with skill games for us to pave the way for the casinos.”
“I would hope that there’s a legislative solution [but] it doesn’t look that way,” the senator said. “That’s why we’ve had to file this lawsuit.”
Attorney General Mark Herring and a spokesperson for the Virginia ABC each said they had not yet been served with the complaint as of Monday afternoon.