Skill game backers ask Youngkin to deliver on vow to support their industry

This article was reprinted with permission from Virginia Mercury

Gov. Glenn Youngkin is still reviewing a bill that would legalize and tax the slot machine lookalikes known as skill games, but supporters of the gambling machines are asking the governor to stick to what he said he’d do when he was running for office.

In a radio appearance posted to Youngkin’s campaign YouTube page in August of 2021, the then-candidate called himself a “big supporter of the skill games.”

“I’m supportive of the skill games. I just think all businesses should be allowed to do business,” Youngkin said on Hampton Roads area station WNIS. “Skill games actually do enable so many small businesses to not only grow their business but also simply to survive.”

Youngkin’s stance two years ago was closely aligned with sentiments on display Tuesday as skill game supporters held a rally on Capitol Square urging the governor to sign legislation to repeal a ban on the machines that’s been in effect since late last year.

The legalization bill passed the General Assembly with bipartisan support earlier this month, but the skill game industry is scrutinizing whether the governor will sign it, veto it or recommend changes. Without the legislation, skill games will remain fully illegal in Virginia. If the governor signs a bill, the regulatory details could determine how profitable the machines will be for the companies that make skill games as well as the small businesses that agree to host the games in exchange for a cut of the profits.

Skill game skeptics, who have pushed to give local government or local voters a say in whether the machines should or shouldn’t be allowed in their communities, are hoping the governor sends down a significantly tougher plan than the one that passed the legislature. The bill approved by lawmakers doesn’t allow localities to opt out.

As they have for much of the 2024 session, gas station and restaurant owners showed up in numbers to argue revenue from skill games was critical to their businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic and still badly needed today.

“As the debate around the regulation of skill games unfolds, I hope that Gov. Youngkin stands by what he said on the campaign,” said Bhavin Patel with the Virginia Amusement Coalition, who said he has owned “a few mom and pop convenience store businesses.”

Some skill game proponents insist the machines aren’t a form of gambling because the outcome is dependent on the player’s skill, not pure chance. However, current Virginia law treats them as a form of illegal gambling, a classification the Supreme Court of Virginia indicated it would uphold despite the skill game industry’s efforts to challenge it.

The legislation sent to Youngkin would allow up to four skill games in convenience stores, restaurants and other retail businesses licensed by the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Control Authority. Truck stops could have up to 10 machines.

A 25% tax would apply to the machines’ revenues. The bill also includes provisions meant to prevent anyone under 21 from playing the games and mitigate gambling addiction, but critics say those measures fall well short of similar rules applied to other forms of gambling like casinos and sports betting apps.

On Tuesday, Youngkin’s office was more circumspect about where the governor stands on the specific bill before him.

“The governor is closely reviewing the legislation and budget language sent to his desk, but still has numerous issues to work through including the regulatory structure, tax rates, the number of machines, impact on the Virginia Lottery and broader public safety implications,” Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said in a statement. “In 2021, when asked about this industry broadly, candidate Youngkin intimated interest in what expansion to these activities in convenience stores could potentially look like in Virginia, but now he has to look at the legislation presented to him.”

Virginians Against Neighborhood Slot Machines, a casino-funded group advocating against the skill game bill, said the governor should veto the bill, regardless of what he said in 2021.

“No one in 2021 could have conceived of a bill that was so lacking in public safety protections as what is on the governor’s desk,” said Nick Larson, a spokesman for the group.

At Tuesday’s rally in support of the skill game bill, Kunal Kumar, an advocate with the Virginia Asian American Store Owners Association, said the legislation was “thoroughly vetted” by the General Assembly and worthy of Youngkin’s support.

“It is a lifeline for businesses all over Virginia,” he said.

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