A little ‘horse sense’ could go a long way in gambling debate

February 28, 2020 12:01 am

Gaming machines at Colonial Downs in New Kent County. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

By Holly Hazard

A few years ago, as lobbyists began pressing the General Assembly to resurrect the racing industry in Virginia, many of us were worried about the horses. It didn’t make sense that anyone would be instigating all this kerfuffle about a dying industry.

The cost of keeping and breeding horses was rising, the public’s interest in going to the track was in decline and the abuse of racehorses had become a hot topic. We didn’t realize however, that opening the Colonial Downs racetrack was just placing a little camel nose under a great big tent. 

The real money had nothing to do with four legs but rather with one arm: slots. And if the General Assembly doesn’t pay attention —fast —  it stands to lose out on millions of dollars, jam up I-95 even more than it is now and fail to give voice to local citizens who may be subjected to a bait-and-switch scheme they won’t see coming until it’s too late.

As the General Assembly considers authorizing five casinos across southern Virginia, some legislators have inserted language that will enrich Colonial Downs’ other enterprise, Rosie’s Gaming Emporium, at the expense of hardworking families in Northern Virginia, with virtually no public debate or consideration of the impact of their expanded vision. This has come about because the voters in Dumfries, in Prince William County, recently authorized the installation of a small number of slot machines.

It would certainly surprise them to know that, with this justification, Colonial Downs has finessed legislators by arguing that this should allow them to plunk 10 times this amount, or 1,800 casino-style slot machines into Northern Virginia. This is because Colonial Downs feels threatened by the possibility that they could lose money due to the construction of some of the other casinos the General Assembly is considering authorizing down state and so, appealing to the General Assembly’s sense of fair play, their lobbyists are demanding that they authorize this outrageous concession. 

Lots of traffic could be added to I-95 and Colonial Downs isn’t going to contribute to anyone’s EZ Pass fees to help alleviate any extra gridlock pain. At the very least, Colonial Downs should pay a fair tax rate to fund improvements. It’s quite the opposite in fact. Colonial Downs has managed to grant themselves an impressively low tax rate–as low as 15%, compared to the 61% that Maryland slots are taxed up to and the 55% rate slots are taxed at in Pennsylvania.

Perhaps even more surprising, Colonial Downs has managed to exempt themselves from some of the most basic requirements that other casinos adhere to: there are no licensing fees, no required community investment, no required participation from minority-owned small businesses and no prevailing wage requirements. Those are priorities our new Democratic majority should be fighting for. These are standard commitments made by other casinos to their host communities, but it looks like the big-time lobbyists are once again getting the better of the overworked and understaffed members. They’ve secured language in the bill giving Colonial Downs a free pass from investing in Virginia. This means money flying out the door for Virginia schools, police, roads, parks and environmental investments. 

We need to scrutinize a casino in Northern Virginia with the same standard that we’ve analyzed all the other casinos proposed around the state. After all, those facilities will likely take years to be fully built, but putting a slot casino in Northern Virginia would be felt by residents very quickly. We shouldn’t be forcing this through without Virginians, who will be affected by it, being able to voice their concerns about the real impact if will have on their lives.

Clearly the 2019 election represented a historic shift in the Virginia government. So much promise of change has been made, but will we see change in the way that we govern? For Virginia’s sake, I hope legislators in Richmond use their horse sense and wait to approve any additional gambling interests to ensure that the commonwealth and the communities in which the entities will reside will benefit substantially from this new endeavor. 

Holly Hazard is the legislative liaison for Network Nova.

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