Lawmakers accused of sneaking ban on games of skill into budget without public input
RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Virginia lawmakers are accused of trying to ban games of skill in the recently passed state budget without any input from the public.
Skill games are common at gas stations, convenience stores, and truck stops across the state. Although they look like slot machines, proponents claim they require some skill, similar to traditional arcade games.
The General Assembly passed a bill to ban them in 2020, after unregulated and untaxed machines had already proliferated. More recently, a judge blocked enforcement during an ongoing legal battle, allowing customers to continue playing for now.
NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler and Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Galax City), who are fighting for the survival of games of skill in the courts, said in a statement that the state budget is “another attack against liberty, tramples on constitutional rights and harms Virginia Small Business.
Stanley criticized a small group of negotiators for inserting language about games of skill into the must-have budget at the last minute and interfering with a pending matter in court.
“What a select few lawmakers have done here is force the rest of the General Assembly members to pass a sweeping change to the penal code that had not previously been introduced as a stand-alone bill at the regular session, never debated by any committee, and never fully vetted by both houses through the regular legislative process,” Stanley said in a statement.
“Quite frankly, this budget amendment is a spaghetti jumble of words intended to appease the outside gambling and casino interests that seek to monopolize this emerging industry,” Stanley continued.
Stanley did not 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 has blindsided the skill games industry, as well as several legislators.
In an interview on Friday, Ashley Jones, head of amusement operations at A1, said a lawmaker told her the budget didn’t address games of skill at all.
“I didn’t even know this was coming until June 1, this change in language that could upend our entire business,” Jones said. “It’s not fair. They haven’t given people a chance to speak up. They’re doing this without notice.
Sen. Steve Newman (R-Lynchburg), one of fourteen participants in the budget, said in an interview hours before the deal was passed on Wednesday that he “didn’t really know for sure” whether the plan to spending was trying to ban gambling. However, his position is not a secret.
“Let me be very clear. I’m not in favor of games of skill. I don’t believe they’re very competent,” Newman said, “I think they’re a scam for locals of Virginia. You should not be playing a game of skill. It is not a good investment for you and you will most likely lose.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), the top Republican budget negotiator, said in an interview after the compromise was released Monday that its goal was to clarify the definition of games of skill. compared to amusement devices.
“We’re not saying they’re banned. We’re not saying they’re legal. We are just stating the definitions. It’s going to court. We’ll let the judge decide,” Knight said.
When asked in a phone interview on Friday whether he thought clarifying those definitions might influence the outcome of the trial and prevent the ban from being overturned, Knight said, “I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know if that changes or not. Supposedly there is some sort of injunction. I just put in definitions, with Senator Howell, so as the case progresses, we have no gray areas as to what a game of skill is as opposed to an amusement device.
Knight said he worked out the language with Senate Appropriations and Finance Committee Chairwoman Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), her Democratic counterpart, as well as legislative staff.
When asked if any casino industry lobbyists were involved, Knight replied, “Zero to my knowledge.”
Knight and Howell declined to answer questions from another outlet about whether the budget would address games of skill before the budget was released.
Both Knight and Howell voted for the bill to ban games of skill in the 2020 session. No legislation was introduced in the 2022 session to reverse the issue.
Knight said he encouraged the industry to work on legislation to legalize gambling in the 2023 session. He said the bill should address age requirements, problem gambling provisions, application and tax rates, among others.
“What we typically do in Virginia is we want to come through the front door with legislation,” Knight said.
Governor Glenn Youngkin still has a chance to change the budget. A spokesperson would not comment specifically on games of skill.