- Associated Press - Monday, November 25, 2019

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The research arm of Virginia’s legislature said in a report Monday that legalizing casinos in Old Dominion would provide a modest economic boost, but mean less money for the horse racing industry and heightened risks of people developing gambling addictions.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that legalizing online betting and allowing casino resorts in Bristol, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Danville and Richmond, would provide an overall yearly increase in state tax revenues by about $370 million. That figure could vary dramatically, depending on several factors including what gaming tax rates would be.

By contrast, the state-run lottery generated more than $600 million in revenues used for public education in 2018.

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Cities where new casinos are built would see thousands of new jobs, mostly low-paying ones, according to the report. JLARC estimated that the median wages would be $33,000 a year, below the average yearly wage in all five cities where casinos have been proposed.

“It is certainly not a panacea,” said outgoing GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox.

Advocates for casinos have said they would bring jobs to economically disadvantaged areas while bringing in money from other states. The report said that three out of every four customers at casinos in Danville and Bristol would be from out of state.

Whether to legalize casinos and where they should go are set to be heavily debated in the 2020 legislative session.

Virginia currently forbids casino gambling, but lawmakers have appeared more open to changing the law in recent years. Legislators are also weighing whether to allow Virginia to offer sports wagering and online gambling.

The debate has many players, some of them with deep pockets that have spent heavily on campaign donations and lobbying efforts. They include coal industrialist Jim McGlothlin, who is behind the push for a casino in Bristol, and the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which is looking at possible casinos in Richmond and Norfolk.

Other key players are the owners of the Colonial Downs horse track. Last year, lawmakers legalized slots-like betting machines at the track and off-track betting parlors around the state.

JLARC’s report said new casinos could decrease the projected revenue of those slot-like machines by 45 percent, which would mean less money for the state’s horse racing industry.

Colonial Downs has strongly opposed the proposed new casinos, saying they would make investors wary of doing business in the state.

Democratic Del. Charniele Herring, who is set to be the House Majority Leader next year, echoed those concerns Monday.

“Other investors are going to look when bringing businesses to Virginia: Are we a state that creates volatility in the market?” she said.

JLARC’s report also said that adding casinos would put place more Virginians “at risk” of developing gambling problems and noted that the state’s problem gambling prevention efforts are “minimal” compared with other states.

Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb urged lawmakers to reject new casinos.

“The negative effects of a casino - including higher crime, addictions, sex trafficking, decreasing home values, financial losses, and broken families - will be felt broadly,” she said in a statement.

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