WASHINGTON — A number of proposals on the table in Virginia would expand gambling to include casinos and sports betting, and Gov. Ralph Northam pronounced himself “open-minded” on the subject, proposing a commission to examine the impact.
Speaking Wednesday with WTOP on his monthly “Ask the Governor” appearance, Northam said of gambling, “you’re gonna hear a lot more about it” when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. Casinos have been proposed for the Hampton Roads and Bristol areas, and at least two bills would establish legal sports betting in the commonwealth.
“I would say everything in moderation,” Northam said in response to a question from a listener. In addition to a commission, he wanted to hear from residents — “We’re going to certainly listen.”
Virginia is one of only 11 states in the U.S. without a casino — Maryland has 6 — and Maryland and D.C. are considering various forms of legalized sports betting. Northam said from a revenue standpoint if nothing else, those ideas had to be considered.
“Whether it’s casinos or horse racing or sports betting,” Northam said, “when individuals enjoy doing this — if it’s part of their lifestyle — when it’s going across our borders into Maryland and other states, we need to step back and say ‘Should we be keeping that revenue in Virginia?’ And that’s why I’ve been open-minded to it. We just want to do it the right way, and we want to do it responsibly.”
Virginia Republicans have brought the issue of the House of Delegates map to the U.S. Supreme Court after a federal court ruled that lawmakers had illegally packed black voters into 11 House districts. A special session of the General Assembly did not produce a resolution to the issue, and Northam on Wednesday said he hoped the issue would be settled “in an expeditious manner.”
The special master tasked with drawing new maps has not been told by the Supreme Court to stop working; Republicans are looking for a stay.
Northam, a Democrat, wanted the matter to be decided and maps drawn early next year, “so that individuals who are running will know the districts, [and] be able to participate in primaries and of course the general election.”
He wanted districts to be drawn “fairly, so that we can get rid of the gerrymandering” that can produce results that can look very different from the statewide vote. In 2017, Virginia’s aggregate popular vote went to the Democratic Party 53 percent to 44 percent, while the Republicans won 51 seats to the Democrats’ 49.
Another redistricting is set for 2021 based on the results of the 2020 Census, and Northam called for a nonpartisan redistricting commission. “That’s what the people deserve. People deserve to choose their representatives rather than politicians picking their voters, and that’s how it is right now.”
Northam wouldn’t say how much the appeals are costing the state, and said no government programs would need to be cut to pay for the legal moves, but he added “it does take resources to do this, and the sooner it can be resolved the better.”
The Amazon deal
On last month’s “Ask the Governor,” Northam was cautiously optimistic about Northern Virginia’s chances at landing Amazon’s second headquarters; since then, Amazon picked the Alexandria and Crystal City area, along with New York, as a site for their new headquarters, bringing an estimated 25,000 jobs to the region.
Northam said that Amazon’s selection was “something we should all be proud of.” He said he was only informed on the afternoon of Nov. 12 of the selection, which was announced the next day. “They kept their cards pretty close,” Northam said.
Virginia’s offer to Amazon wasn’t the most lucrative, but Northam called it “a very innovative package, that was both modest and disciplined,” and said it was focused on workforce development, transportation and infrastructure, and affordable housing – things that needed to be done whether Amazon was coming or not.
The deal has been criticized for spending public money on luring a company owned by the world’s richest man, but Northam defended the deal as “performance-based,” adding, “Virginia will not spend any money until we see that these jobs are coming and are here.” He added that ”over 70 percent of the package we’ve committed to Amazon is investing in Virginia.”
He cited the deal for dedicated Metro funding, and the region’s follow-up, as a critical factor in the deal, as well as a $225 million investment in affordable housing, as examples of bipartisan cooperation that wrapped it up.
Northam emphasized the package of low-interest loans and grants for developers for mixed-income living that were part of the package, and, referring to the advertised average salary of the new Amazon jobs, said, “We have people who don’t make $150,000 a year, such as first responders and teachers, and we want them to live near where they work.”
The Crystal City area was hit especially hard by military realignment and other changes, and Northam called the Amazon agreement “transformative for the Crystal City area.” He added that “no region should be dependent on one industry,” and emphasized the importance of “diversifying the economy” – which he also said would be important in weathering any potential federal government shutdowns, such as the one looming Dec. 7.
Climate change and the pipelines
The federal government released a report last week that documented the effects of climate change and predicted conditions that could threaten Virginia’s ports, coastal real estate and agriculture. President Donald Trump has said he doesn’t “believe” in the predictions, and has in the past expressed skepticism that climate change even exists. Meanwhile, his administration has been rolling back environmental protections which it finds unfriendly to American business.
Northam, who as a state senator was a member of climate change commissions under governors Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe, said he takes the report “very seriously.”
Northam, a doctor, added, “I am a scientist. … I can promise you that the sea level is rising. If anybody doesn’t believe that, come visit me on the Eastern Shore and maybe take a tour of Tangier Island.”
He added that Virginia was committed to weaning itself off fossil fuels and environmentalism, saying that state had committed to produce 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy over the next three years – enough to power 750,000 homes. He added that his administration is using Volkswagen settlement money to open charging systems, and that his new budget proposal will have “a significant investment in conservation” – up to 2 percent of spending.
That said, Northam has gotten crosswise with a number of environmentalist groups with his actions surrounding a pair of planned natural gas pipelines that would crisscross Virginia. Most recently, Northam removed two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board after the citizen review board delayed a key vote on whether to allow a natural gas compressor station in a historic African-American community. Their terms had expired in June, but The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports more than 230 people with expired terms are still serving on Virginia boards and commissions. The new members won’t be seated until after the vote is taken next month.
Northam emphasized that the two members’ terms had expired and added that the new members were “very qualified. … Give them a chance and I think they’ll be pleased with what they do.”
The governor said there was “not a lot of middle road on [the] issue. … I have tried to take the position of being fair; I’m not trying to play favorites.” He said the state needed to “use science; we need to use the law; we need to take people’s property rights into account. If the pipeline moves forward, all of these things need to be considered.”
The Associated Press and WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report.