Gaming machines get possible reprieve because of pandemic

(Photo courtesy/Pixabay)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Unregulated betting machines in gas stations and bars have been granted a possible 11th hour reprieve in Virginia thanks to the coronavirus. And casino legalization in the Old Dominion has taken a big step forward.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam took action on several gambling-related pieces of legislation over the weekend, including a bill that would have banned so-called “gray machines,” which have proliferated in restaurants, bars and convenience stores in recent years.

The governor is now asking lawmakers to delay the ban, saying the impact of the coronavirus on the economy requires a new approach. Northam wants to tax the machines and use the revenue to fund a virus relief plan aimed at helping small businesses and improving social services for individuals.

Northam’s chief of staff Clark Mercer said banning the machines now would hurt the restaurants that rely on the extra revenue from the games and have been hit hard by mandated closures due to the coronavirus.

“Clearly, our restaurants have been hurting,” Mercer said.

The machines are called gray machines because they operate in a gray area of the law. The games look and play like slot machines, though the manufacturers say there is an element of skill involved.

Companies that make and distribute the machines spent heavily on campaign donations and lobbying to keep the machines legal in Virginia.

“We appreciate the governor’s leadership in this matter as he worked to address a revenue stream which greatly assists local small businesses and their employees,” said Mike Barley, a spokesman for Pace-O-Matic.

Northam also took action on high-profile legislation to legalize casinos in five cities — Bristol, Danville, Richmond, Portsmouth and Norfolk. Virginia is one of only a handful of states that currently ban casinos.

Some would-be casino operators have signed agreements with local governments without going through a competitive bidding process.

The governor’s office had previously spoken out about the need for greater competition for casino licenses than what was in the bill, but wound up making only relatively minor adjustments to the legislation.

Lawmakers will take up Northam’s amendments later this month during a one-day legislative session. If the casino bill gains final passage, residents of those cities could vote in a referendum to legalize casinos later this year.

Legislators also will consider whether to overturn Northam’s one and only veto this year. With Democrats in full control of state government for the first time in a generation, the governor did not veto as many pieces of legislation as in past years when Republicans controlled the legislature.

The one bill Northam vetoed was legislation to prohibit plant-based beverages from being marketed as “milk,” as in “soy milk” or “almond milk.”

Northam’s office said the measure could violate free speech.

Eric Paulson, executive secretary of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association, called the veto disappointing.

“These imitation products try to pass themselves off as an equivalent product to consumers but in reality they are nutritionally inferior to real milk,” he said.

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