Northam amends gambling bill to reiterate ban on skill machines

Northam amends gambling bill to reiterate ban on skill machines
Games that allow people to bet money and win cash have popped up around the state, including in this Richmond corner store. Manufacturers say they're games of skill, not chance. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam is amending a gambling bill that easily passed the General Assembly to once again specify that so-called skill games would become illegal come July 1, the governor’s office announced Friday.

If the General Assembly agrees, the change could mean the end of the games resembling slot machines that have spread fast among Virginia convenience stores, restaurants and truck stops. Legislators had agreed to ban them last year, but the Northam administration proposed taxing them for one year only to generate money for a COVID-19 relief fund.

It appeared legislators agreed the machines shouldn’t be a part of the state’s growing gambling industry, but language added to a bill late in the 2021 session seemed to grant them legal status until the summer of 2022.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, said that wasn’t his intent. Nevertheless, gambling lobbyists and others had flagged the bill, meant to give local governments and prosecutors more power to crack down on illicit gambling machines, as potentially doing the opposite of what the General Assembly intended.

When Northam proposed extending the life of skill machines last year as the pandemic began, a top Northam aide explicitly told General Assembly leaders the governor would veto any attempt to continue them past July 1.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.