Virginia Lawmakers Committed to Banning Skill Games in 2021, Despite Terminals Providing COVID-19 Relief

Posted on: September 20, 2020, 12:04h. 

Last updated on: September 18, 2020, 11:51h.

Virginia lawmakers say the General Assembly remains committed to banning skill gaming machines next year, even as the terminals are providing the state with critical COVID-19 relief money in 2020.

Virginia skill gaming machine
Virginia skill gaming players test their luck — and a little bit of alleged skill — at a bar in Richmond. (Image: Richmond Magazine)

The General Assembly considered banning the controversial gambling machines earlier this year. But amid the pandemic, lawmakers opted in April to allow the terminals to remain in certain businesses to help offset revenue losses caused by the coronavirus.

House Bill 881, approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam (D), provided a legal footing for the skill-based gaming machines to stand. However, HB 881 only granted the machines legal clemency through July 1, 2021.

Virginia Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said this week that she remains united with Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in the position that the skill gaming reprieve will not be extended.

Skill gaming terminals are only allowed inside establishments licensed by the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC). HB 881 mandated that the machines be placed inside qualifying businesses — convenience stores, restaurants, and truck stops, for instance — by July 1, 2020.

Skill gaming manufacturers claim their operations do not constitute gambling on grounds that there’s an element of skill involved. Unlike a traditional slot machine, which automatically tells a player whether their spin won or lost, a skill terminal requires the player to identify a winning payline.

COVID-19 Relief

HB 881 allocates the majority of tax revenue generated by skill gaming to the state’s COVID-19 Relief Fund. The money is to be used at Northam’s discretion solely for purposes of responding to the Commonwealth’s needs related to the coronavirus disease.

Each skill gaming distributor pays the state $1,200 a month per gaming position (aka seat). While most of the terminals are one-seat positions, similar to slot machines, some of the skill games are multiplayer, and therefore cost more. For instance, a six-person table top machine costs $7,200 a month.

With the deadline passed for skill gaming manufacturers and distributors to place their products inside ABC-licensed businesses, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) has asked the ABC to keep close tabs on the number of machines in operation.

I have historically referred to them somewhat as bandits, and sometimes bandits are less than forthcoming with information,” Norment opined.

The Virginia Department of Taxation says it collected roughly $12 million in tax payments from skill gaming in July. Of that money, 84 percent is allocated to COVID-19 relief. Twelve percent goes to the local municipality where the games are being played, two percent to the state’s Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Fund, and two percent to the Virginia ABC.

Virginia Ready to Gamble?

Commercial gambling remains prohibited in Virginia. But five cities have the power to change that on November 3.

Northam signed a gaming bill in April that allows voters in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Richmond, Danville, and Bristol to decide whether they want to allow a commercial casino in their hometowns.

Each of the potential five casinos would be allowed traditional slot machines and table games.