PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Bars, restaurants and convenience store owners say gamers have returned quickly to play skill machines following a judge’s decision to temporarily lift a ban, but what hasn’t returned is the tax revenue for the state and local governments.
A judge’s injunction issued in Greensville Circuit Court puts the so-called skill game ban on hold until a trial set for May. It does nothing to restart regulation that had been overseen by Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (Virginia ABC).
Those who were critical of the legislation say the current situation is a prime example of how state lawmakers messed up.
“They could be getting all this money, but right now they are not,” said former Norfolk Councilman Randy Wright on Thursday. Wright served as a lobbyist for Queen of Va Skill & Entertainment LLC, the largest supplier of skill games in the state, for a year and spoke for plaintiffs in an earlier lawsuit that failed to stop the ban.
Skill machines brought in more than $130 million in tax revenue for the year they were regulated, much of it going to a COVID-19 relief fund.
But sources say “everything is in flux” with the latest court ruling and that currently, the games will operate with no oversight or dedicated tax stream.
Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin hasn’t yet taken a firm position on the machines, which were banned with bipartisan support on July 1 of this year.
The state’s current top Republican, state Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City County), Finance Committee Chair State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax County), and state Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) all have criticized the gaming manufacturers for the way they entered the state without permission and hurt lottery sales.
The games operate much like a slot machine. But after the initial spin, players on skill machines can adjust the symbols to create a winning pattern to win additional money.
Business owners receive a cut of that money. Many have told WAVY that the games’ presence helps to keep customers at their business longer, spending money on other products.
“They help bring in revenue. Help pay the staff. And the staff even gets tipped off these things. It’s great,” said Sean Deans, manager of the Hilltop location of Kelly’s Tavern in Virginia Beach.
He said the phone is been ringing off the hook since the injunction was issued.
“The customers are thrilled to have them,” Deans said. “Let’s revisit it. Come up with a plan.”