Confusion Reigns as Virginia Legislature Votes to Legalize Skill Gaming Machines by Mistake

Posted on: March 17, 2021, 05:12h. 

Last updated on: March 17, 2021, 05:44h.

Did lobbyists for the Virginia’s skill games industry just hoodwink state lawmakers into greenlighting the legality of their machines for another year? Some people in Richmond think so.

Virginia skill gaming
Gov. Ralph Northam proposed licensing and taxing skill gaming machines for a year to help establish a COVID-19 fund. (Image: Zach Gibson/Getty)

Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam came up with a plan to tax and regulate the slot-like terminals that had become ubiquitous in convenience stores and truck stops across the state, but which occupied a gray area of the law.

The idea was that making the machines legal for just one year would help shore up finances for struggling businesses, while tax revenues generated would be paid into a COVID-19 fund. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Pulling the Plug

Since the plan came into effect last July, the machines have raised more than $70 million for the fund. But now lawmakers want the fun to stop. A bill to extend the licensing of the machines for another year failed to make it out of committee. That means, come July 1, 2021, it will be time to pull the plug.

Or will it? The Virginia Mercury reports that a bill ostensibly designed to make it easier to prosecute illegal gambling may have tricked lawmakers into voting to extend skill-gaming licensing for another year.

After stipulating illegal gambling operators should be subject to a fine of up to $25,000, the bill lists those exempted from the penalty. It states that “any organization or person that conducted bingo, network bingo, instant bingo, pull tabs, seal cards, raffles, duck races, Texas Hold’em poker tournaments, or regulated gaming […] on or before February 1, 2021, may continue such activities only at those locations until June 30, 2022.”

The bill was passed emphatically last month by both chambers. And since skill games machines were “regulated gaming” on February 1, 2021, it looks like they just got a stay of execution.

Cue confusion.

Backer Denies Conspiracy

The bill’s main sponsor, Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth), assured the Mercury that it was not his intention to extend skill gaming. But even he admitted the language is open to interpretation.

“The way that I constructed the language was in consultation with a lot of the charitable people. And that was my intent, to make sure they would not be impacted,” he said. “If people are interpreting it another way, that’s on them.”

And if it is a conspiracy by the skill-gaming industry, it was a nice try, but it’s still doomed to fail. The bill currently sits atop Northam’s desk awaiting sign-off. You may remember, he’s the guy who came up with the idea of limiting the machines’ licenses to 12 months in the first place.

“Governor Northam expects skill games to end as of July 1, 2021. That has been his consistent position, and it hasn’t changed,” said Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office. “The governor’s action on this legislation will reflect that stance.”