Bills soon to be on table for sports gambling in Virginia

If he were laying odds, state Sen. Chap Petersen would like the chances that Virginia's General Assembly will legalize sports gambling.

"I've talked to a couple people who are not crazy about it, starting with my mother," said Petersen, a Fairfax Democrat. "But I don't think the moral stigma is all that much anymore."

Petersen and fellow northern Virginia Democrats Mark Sickles and Marcus Simon are advancing three different bills that would allow Virginia to offer sports wagering. And while Petersen said there are a lot of details still to be worked out, "I think the concept itself is going to flow through."

Virginia is one of many states considering whether to legalize sports gambling after a U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the door for states other than Nevada to get in the game. The 45-day legislative session begins in January.

Already, West Virginia has enacted sports gambling, and Virginians are hitting the highways to place bets at the sports book at the Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, West Virginia. It is perhaps no coincidence that all three proposals advanced so far come from lawmakers in northern Virginia, where the effect is most evident when gamblers leaving the state to spend cash at casinos in West Virginia and Maryland — where casinos are in place but sports wagering has yet to be approved.

Proponents of bringing sports gambling to Virginia differ on some of the details, but are united in the overall principle that they don't want to see the state losing out on revenue. If people are going to place bets, proponents say, it's better to do it in Virginia rather than with illegal or offshore sports bookmakers or in surrounding states.

For many decades, though, Virginia has resisted the trend to adopt casino-style gambling. Virginia is one of a handful of states that still forbids casino gambling, though the state has taken baby steps down that road by allowing Colonial Downs racetrack to install machines that allow wagering on previously run horse races that, as a practical matter, mimics slot-machine style gambling.

Sara Slane, senior vice president for public affairs with the American Gaming Association, said she believes sports gambling generally faces less resistance than casinos, so it would not be particularly unusual for Virginia to allow sportsbooks before it allows casinos. The District of Columbia, which also has no casinos, earlier this month became the first U.S. jurisdiction without casinos to authorize sports gambling. But the bill passed by the D.C. City Council must survive a congressional review in order to become law.

"The rate at which sports betting is being enacted is fairly quick," she said.

Sports wagering legislation will face opposition in Richmond.

The Family Foundation, a conservative group with a strong lobbying presence before the General Assembly, said it is opposed to sports gambling. Victoria Cobb, the group's president, discounted the notion that the legislature's resistance to gambling is crumbling.

"The goal of the gambling industry is to come into any state and make legalization and expansion look like a fait accompli and they have applied that strategy here in Virginia," Cobb said. "They still work against decades of our legislature reviewing the ramifications of gambling and rejecting its worst forms."

Simon said he is relatively flexible on the details, but wants to ensure that bettors have transparent wagering platforms. He also favors a provision where a gambler could lock himself out from wagering over a set period of time if he decides that he needs to take a break.

A key issue is whether to allow betting on collegiate sports, particularly in Virginia, as the state has no major professional sports teams. Slane, with the American Gaming Association, said that if collegiate sports are excluded, gamblers will continue to use illegal bookies. But all three Virginia proposals limit collegiate gambling to some extent, with Petersen's proposal banning almost all collegiate gambling, while Sickles said his bill would bar wagers on Virginia-based colleges and universities.

The bills also differ on whether gambling would be regulated by the state lottery or another entity. Working out the details may prove complicated enough that the legislature tables the various proposals and appoints a committee to study the issue and come back in the 2020 session, Simon said.

"What all of our bills have in common is the realization that this presents a huge opportunity, and we need to make sure we set the rules and protect our residents," Simon said.

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