MGM Grand, Caesars and a slew of slot machine manufacturers and other gambling-related concerns are expressing sudden interest in the Virginia General Assembly, hiring more than a dozen lobbyists over the past several weeks to represent them during the upcoming session.
Their precise goals vary, and, in some cases, aren’t yet clear, but for the big-name casinos, sports betting has become a major focus since a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year ended a federal ban on sports betting outside of Nevada.
“I can almost guarantee you there will be legislation for sports betting in Virginia,” said Brian Hess, who recently registered with the state as a lobbyist for the Sports Fans Coalition, which advocates for consumer protections such as transparency, privacy and the right for problem-gamblers to self-exclude.
Four states have already legalized sports betting since the May ruling, according to ESPN: Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi and West Virginia. Legislation was proposed but failed to pass in another 15 states.
Hess said the fact that Virginia was the first state to legalize daily fantasy sports sites like DraftKings and FanDuel in 2016 makes it a particularly likely target for a concerted push to legalize sports betting.
The casino companies could also simply be protecting their existing interests in neighboring sates.
“We note that MGM and Caesars operate casinos in neighboring Maryland, and that both —particularly MGM, which is a mere eight-minute drive away from Alexandria — likely draw meaningful foot traffic from northeastern Virginia,” said Chris Krafcik, an industry analyst and the managing director of Eilers & Krejcik Gaming.
“We believe both companies are lobbying in Virginia mainly in an effort to protect the flow of foot traffic from Virginia to Maryland, or to ensure they are eligible to operate under any casino-enabling legislation introduced in Virginia, or both.”
For their part, MGM, Caesars and the lobbyists they’ve hired have so far said little about their goals.
MGM’s executive vice president for global communications, Alan Feldman, said in a statement that the company “looks forward to working with policy makers as the commonwealth considers gaming-related matters.”
Representatives of Caesars and slots manufacturers like Pace-O-Matic, Castle Hill Gaming and Powerhouse Gaming, who have also recently retained lobbying representation during the coming session, either declined to comment or didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Gambling opposition softened among conservative Virginia lawmakers
State lawmakers have traditionally opposed initiatives to broaden gambling in Virginia, but cracked the door this year when they gave permission to the new operator of Colonial Downs to install slot-like gaming machines at the track and in off-track betting parlors around the state.
Rules finalized by the Virginia Racing Commission earlier this month will allow 3,000 of the machines statewide, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Meanwhile, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe is pursuing a $700 million casino in New Kent County between Hampton Roads and Richmond.
And in the far southwestern corner of the state, a local business group in Bristol is ramping up a major lobbying effort seeking General Assembly approval to open what’s being pitched as a destination casino resort in defunct shopping mall.
Major push for casino in deep-red coal country
So far, seven lobbyists have registered to represent the developer during the coming session, according to the Virginia Public Access project, which tracks money in state politics.
They’re pitching it to residents and lawmakers as a potential source of good-paying jobs in a part of the state that has struggled economically, said Rob Jones of the Alliance Group, which is leading public relations efforts around the project.
“It’s a big opportunity down in Southwest Virginia,” he said.
Similar arguments made by other localities have failed in years past. Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, has for years put forward legislation that would allow a casino to open in Portsmouth. She’s argued that the state is losing out on millions of dollars in potential revenue every year as customers drive from Virginia to Maryland to gamble there.
The legislation has been killed in committee on party line votes, with Democrats supporting and Republicans unanimously opposing.
It’s unclear if, with the request coming from a deep-red corner of the state, views will change.
House Speaker Kirk Cox told the Washington Post earlier this year that he does not “believe opening the commonwealth to casino gambling is in the state’s long-term best interests.”
General Assembly members representing that part of the state have so far remained noncommittal.
Dylan Bishop, chief of staff for state Sen. Charles “Bill” Carrico, R-Grayson, said he is still talking to his constituents and hasn’t made up his mind, but has said that if legislation goes forward, it should require approval in a local referendum before any projects are allowed to advance.
“There are considerable hurdles in the legislature regardless of where our office stands on it,” he said.