Yes, Virginia, in 2019 it probably makes sense to legalize casino gambling By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports February 27, 2019 at 8:00 pm You can’t blame states for trying not to legalize casino gambling. The gaming industry, often as oversold as it is misunderstood, is a lot more complicated than it’s often portrayed. For its critics, and there are still plenty of them, its influence on society is only slightly less than a satanic scourge. For its cheerleaders, and they too often command the megaphone, it’s often painted as a panacea of easy tax revenues and employment opportunities. To watch the conservative Commonwealth of Virginia go through the long process of coming to the realization that legalizing casino gambling probably makes sense in a region that’s all but fully embraced the idea, is a reminder of just how far the industry’s come in a relatively short time. Not so many years ago, no self-respecting bookmaker would have made odds that Virginia would ever get to this point. And that goes for many other states, too. Of course times have changed. And this past week, Virginia’s state General Assembly passed legislation, Substitute Senate Bill 1126, that puts legalization on track for 2020. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is expected to sign the bill. According to one press report, Northam has said he’d sign the bill it were determined to “beneficial for Virginia.” Guessing no one has money on “Veto” at this point. Like other states that have managed to legalize gambling without diving into the deep end of the pool, the Virginia bill puts a foot in the water by enabling casino developments in Portsmouth, Danville, and Bristol. (Richmond and Norfolk are also in the discussion.) But there’s a catch – only after the passage of a local referendum. In other words, the legislature doesn’t really want to take full responsibility for sidling up to the casino industry. And Gov. Northam has his reservations – at least officially, and you can quote him on that. And citizens in the first group of cities will have to decide for themselves if, despite all that, they really want a casino in their own backyards. According to published reports, Northam has been supportive of legalization in areas of the state with flagging tax revenues and higher-than-average unemployment. Apparently, he’s chosen to ignore the arguments of critics who contend casinos positioned in poorer areas can have a debilitating impact on those economically vulnerable communities. Despite the fact plenty of economic impact studies have already been conducted in other states, Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission is planning what reports are calling a “comprehensive study” with a November 2019 deadline. The earliest voters can cast ballots for local approval is 2020. None of this occurs in a political vacuum. The casino developers are expected to launch their own marketing campaign highlighting the positive elements of legalization. Time and the tastes of the American public are on their side. Only two decades ago, a half dozen states offered commercial gambling, some of it with wagering limits on players. Including tribal operations, the number of states that offer casino gambling has grown to 30. That includes Virginia’s neighbor Maryland. Of particular note is MGM Resort International’s shimmering National Harbor Hotel & Casino across from Washington, D.C. near the banks of the Potomac. That’s so close to Virginia that George Washington could probably have hit it with a silver dollar. Traditionally, Virginia legislators have never gotten into trouble voting against gambling legalization. Their lack of political courage in 2019 isn’t surprising. It’s something those who have followed the arc of gambling’s expansion have come to expect. If past performances teach us anything, in a couple years casino developers can expect to see many of those who vocally opposed gambling legalization to come around with hat in hand at election time. With no voter approval possible before late 2020, there’s still plenty of time for both sides of the issue to lobby public opinion. In the commonwealth, they like to say, “Virginia is for Lovers.” Soon enough, I suspect it will be for gamblers, too. Contact John L. Smith at email@example.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.