Virginia lawmaker introduces bill to legalize casinos

Local,Virginia,Taylor Holland

A bill that would bring casinos to Virginia has already been filed for next year's General Assembly session.

The legislation would create a commission to license and oversee casinos, just after Maryland residents vote on whether they want a casino in Prince George's County and to add table games to the already approved five slots parlors in the state.

Maryland voter approval on Nov. 8 could bring a casino to National Harbor on the Potomac River, a convention destination that Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker is backing for an $800 million gambling palace operated by MGM.

The site would draw many gamblers from D.C. and Virginia -- the drive from Old Town Alexandria would take a mere 10 minutes over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Gambling experts say 70 percent of visitors would come from outside Maryland.

And that has Virginians concerned about trying to keep that money in their state, much as Maryland officials in 2008 stressed that slots parlors would keep gambling money inside their state instead of being siphoned off by neighboring Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which all allow gambling. Maryland voters approved five slots casinos in November 2008.

While Virginia may not approve the bill next year, it lays the groundwork for the future, gambling experts say.

"These types of bills tend to start with limited support," said Frank Fantini, CEO of Fantini Research and publisher of its gaming report. "But once Virginia lawmakers get tired of bleeding money to neighboring states, it could, eventually, gain momentum and pass."

And as the likelihood of a casino near the Virginia state line grows, Fantini said he expected state lawmakers, likely led by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who introduced Virginia's latest casino bill, and a Northern Virginia contingent familiar with the operation of Maryland casinos, to eventually pass the bill or one similar to it.

"States are acting like they are at war with neighboring states and have to protect their borders," said Alan Woinski, president of Gaming USA Corp. "The result is the casinos open, come in below the inflated expectations, they destroy the neighboring state's casinos and everyone loses."

Fantini said he wouldn't be surprised if landowners in Virginia were clearing property for casinos in as few as three years.

"The time will come [for casinos in Virginia]," Fantini said. "Not everyone may like it, but they'll realize they should be taking advantage of the opportunity it presents."

Portsmouth Vice Mayor Charles Whitehurst said he was open to letting "the people decide ... through a referendum" whether they wanted a casino in the area.

Lucas did not respond to request for comments.

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